Science whiz Maansi Nema helps young girls explore the world of STEM
By Danielle Alexander
Photography by Allison Farrand
One night in October 2018, Maansi Nema found herself with a microphone in hand, preparing to speak in front of hundreds of people. The Novi High School student, now 16, was at Novi Meadows Elementary School to talk about STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering) education — and she was nervous. To calm herself, she thought of one thing: how important it was for young girls to have role models in STEM, especially ones who looked like them.
When it comes to STEM fields, “There’s a very prominent gender gap,” says Nema — and that’s particularly true for women of color. (According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2015-2016, of the women who earned bachelor’s degrees across STEM fields, less than 12% were women of color.) “I realized it’s the lack of confidence, not ability, that’s holding back girls like me, so I thought it was important to get younger students, especially girls, interested in the beginning.”
Nema herself never considered STEM as a possible career path for that exact reason. Her interest was sparked when she was “peer pressured” into joining her high school’s robotics team and later taking a programming class. “I thought it would be impossible for me to ever code because I didn’t think I was smart enough,” says Nema, who nonetheless kept at it. “I fell in love with the power of coding,” she adds. “The syntax, algorithms and data structures were mesmerizing.”
And now she’s helping other girls feel the same way by providing opportunities to learn about STEM in innovative and engaging ways. In 2018 and 2019, Nema held three STEM Nights at Novi Meadows Elementary. The events — which she produced in collaboration with engineering organizations including the Society of Women Engineers and the Michigan Science Center — were geared toward K-6 students and featured activities like building structures out of marshmallows and making environmentally friendly water bottles.
“Students were able to create meaningful relationships and learn new skills with all the mentors,” says Nema. “And each STEM Night kept getting better and better.” By the third night, 743 people turned out.
In addition to STEM Night, Nema implemented a weekly STEM curriculum at the Novi Rotary Foundation’s Feed the Need Summer Lunch Program, which provides food and enrichment programming for students in need. Here, Nema developed the teaching material, secured funding, recruited volunteers and taught interactive STEM lessons — like slime making — to more than 60 students in grades K-6.
When creating the lessons, she considered how each one “could be applied to the real world,” she says. When students were designing paper airplanes, for example, “they learned about the Wright brothers, engines and forces.”
Nema estimates she’s dedicated 400 hours to developing and working on her STEM initatives — a clearly impressive commitment. “Maansi is a rock star,” says Nema’s Girl Scout mentor Kenyatta Juniel. (Nema has been involved with the organization since she was in kindergarten.) “I mentor several Girl Scouts, and of all the girls, she’s been the one who exceeded expectations and went above and beyond her call of duty.”
As of now, Nema hopes to pursue a career in technology and business (she doesn’t yet know where she wants to attend college). She also plans to continue running her nonprofit, STEM without Boundaries, which she founded last December. The organization fosters an interest in STEM for students through programs, workshops and events, and its main mission is to create chapters nationwide that can produce STEM nights in their respective communities.
“Changing the culture around STEM will allow girls to build their confidence,” says Nema. “With the right resources and support, I know any girl can pursue a STEM field.”