Dr. Kennedy was the first Director of Teaching & Learning, Literacy and Outreach for the New York Public Library system. She has served as adjunct faculty in the Masters of Education programs of Hunter College, CUNY, and Metropolitan College of New York and in the Exhibition Design program at the Fashion Institute of Technology. She has served as Chair of the New York City Museum Educators Roundtable and as National Associate for the Education Committee of the American Alliance of Museums. Dr. Kennedy received her Ph.D. in Urban Education from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and her Master’s in Education from the Bank Street College of Education.

What got your interest piqued in science and technology? Was there a particular mentor?

Dr. Kennedy: Not at all. I am the first person in my immediate family to get a college degree. My dad was a cop and my mom was a homemaker. For me, it came from the public school system in Philadelphia where I grew up. My family made great use of the cultural resources of the city; for example, we would go to the Franklin Institute where there were hands-on interactive exhibits that explain electricity or walk you through a human heart. I was passionate about museums as places of public learning.

A lot of the research we’ve been doing indicates there is an influence from a parent. We think about the girls who don’t have that in their social resource bucket. How do we provide mentorship that’s sustainable? How do we provide the next step to a new opportunity that they might not know about because the people in their family or social circle are not tapped into that?

You have a program called GOALS for Girls that has been one of the more consistently successful programs. Can you explain more about it?

Dr. Kennedy: The target audience for GOALS for Girls is 12-year-olds who wouldn’t have this sort of natural STEM network around them but they may be curious about STEM. To be part of the program, they don’t have to be straight A students and they probably haven’t had a lot of opportunity to explore that curiosity. It’s an intensive six-week program focusing on different sciences including engineering, environmental, aviation, and space. At the end of the six weeks, the girls have the opportunity to apply for paid internships should they want to stay on to work in a junior staff position. We have mentorship days when women from a variety of STEM fields come here and conduct what’s similar to a speed dating experience. The girls can move from table to table and interview these women. We try to give them the cultural capital that they might not have.

Have you had other organizations interested in this program because of the success you’ve had?

Dr. Kennedy: Yes, we do. What happens in New York City and in other large cities is that you have high-performing schools with a great counselor-to-student ratio where the girls are made aware of opportunities. And if you have a good program — and a high-performing school with a STEM focus often will — we advertise it to all the girls and encourage them to apply. So, how do we do outreach to the schools that maybe do not provide their students with opportunities? We go to the community centers where the girls are hanging out after school in the South Bronx and we have alumni go and talk about their experiences. We assure them that we’re not looking for someone with perfect scores. That’s a big barrier. Sometimes the different sciences are approached in a siloed way at school, which turns kids off and they don’t do as well as they could.

So, much of this is the family climate — their home environment — and what stereotypes are being perpetuated. Lots of outside factors to consider.

Dr. Kennedy: Right — a lot of it is exposure. If you don’t come from a family where there are people with STEM in their background, you don’t even know what STEM jobs are. When we have a career day, we may have someone from a company that makes space-suits or someone involved in the chemistry behind fabric treatments at Coach or the mathematician from Spotify whose formulas make music pop up in your feed. If you look at what the career choices might be, it’s so much wider than it used to be. It really helps the girl who doesn’t naturally have this in her life to come to a program where she has the opportunity to meet and talk and ask questions of women who are working in these areas and how they got there.

You have other programs focused on topics like engineering design, aviation, and space.

Dr. Kennedy: Yes. We’ll have an exhibit this year at our Space Shuttle Pavilion called When We Went to the Moon. In that era of history, women were not widely represented but they were there and not just behind the scenes. We focus on Betty Skelton, a woman who was put through the same training as the male astronauts, which was sort of a gimmick at the time. She wasn’t put on the covers of magazines but she basically proved that women could do it. And why not?

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This article first appeared in the March, 2020 issue of Tech Briefs Magazine.

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