Somewhere, a young woman is planning a trip to the moon. Thanks to her determination, she just might get there.
Meet Amanda Gutierrez. Amanda is passionate about Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM). She’s planning on being an astronautical engineer. She’s also one of the newest members of the Million Girls Moonshot (MGM) Advisory Board.
MGM is a multi-year, nationwide initiative organized by STEMNext that aims to increase the number of women and other underrepresented groups interested in careers in fast growing STEM fields through growing more equitable and inclusive STEM learning opportunities in afterschool and summer learning programs.
STEMNext awarded an MGM grant to Beyond School Bells (BSB), Nebraska Children and Families Foundation’s initiative supporting afterschool and summer learning in Nebraska. The MGM goal is to expose 1 million girls and other underrepresented youth across the nation to STEM careers through expanding access to high quality afterschool and summer learning experiences.
The number of women in STEM is disturbingly low. But as an organization that envisions positive change, we see no reason why we can’t increase women’s presence in this competitive, burgeoning field.
Literally a week ago, she joined the MGM Advisory Board.
Amanda said, “It’s going to be interesting to see how I can put forward modern day problems that I see in the [STEM] field and in high school, but also meet all the amazing people on that board.”
“I know there are a lot of women in leadership [on the board], and they’re willing to give all they can to MGM and Nebraska. I’m really excited to meet them.”
Amanda names peer pressure and gender expectations as one of the reasons for the lack of women in STEM.
“We need to get girls inclusively into [STEM] without making it a dividing barrier between friendships and friend groups. We ought to have a lot more group activities because a lot of things we do [in STEM] are individual. When you have big group projects, you can get girls involved, usually those who wouldn’t even think about STEM as an option,” said Amanda.
Moreover, Amanda said that relatability is key.
“A lot of girls don’t do STEM because they don’t find it relatable to their life, so they’re afraid to take the next step. We need to find stepping-stone projects to give that girl or boy a sneak peek into what their life could be, and how STEM can relate to modern day world problems, and how they can help the world as an adult,” she said.
“Lastly, participating in STEM doesn’t mean girls can’t do other things in addition to STEM. For example, I have been dancing for 11 years. I’m at my dance studio almost every day after school. It doesn’t have to be either/or,” said Amanda.
A high school sophomore at Pius X in Lincoln, Nebraska, Amanda’s passion for STEM goes back to second grade.
“We were doing a unit about simple astronomy. We were learning about phases of the moon and seasons. At that moment, I decided I really loved astronomy,” she said.
But for Amanda, planning a trip to the moon didn’t happen overnight. Some of the biggest difficulties for her have included her occasionally feeling like an outsider.
“Peer-pressure is one of the hardest things,” said Amanda. “I’ve always had great friends and felt like I belonged at school. The issue was that not a lot of my friends were really into STEM. They’re into activities like sports. I was constantly the only girl, and I was the only Hispanic girl in my grade. Sometimes there wasn’t anyone to relate to,” she said.
For Amanda, breaking the mold of how a STEM role model “should look” is paramount to women’s success in the field, especially for women of color.
Amanda said that she’s had to reconstruct her own notions of what a role model looks like.
“For me, the typical role model in engineering would be a white male. He’s very smart; he does everything perfectly the first time and is just so amazing. Sometimes, I’d feel like I don’t fit into that position. I can never be as smart as he is.”
But still, Amanda said she’s determined to become her own new role model and succeed. Luckily, she has plenty of people in her corner. Some of her greatest supporters include her family and educators.
“My family and wonderful teachers were just amazing in encouraging that [desire] in me,” said Amanda.
After she fell in love with astronomy, Amanda said her interest took off.
“In the second to fourth grade, I was a huge astronomy geek. I loved astronomy; I loved the solar system. In sixth grade when I had the first chance to participate in the science fair, I did a project on the Apollo 17 mission. When I first started researching the mission, I fell in love,” she said.
From there, an astronaut was born, and Amanda shot for the moon.
“I decided right then and there that I wanted to be Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong! My hope is to become an astronaut later in life. I’ve also always been into engineering, building things, science experiments, all those things that create the pathway to becoming an astronomer,” said Amanda.
Just as Amanda fell deeper in love with STEM over the years, BSB encourages kids and youth to do the same. As proponents of high-quality expanded learning opportunities (ELOs), BSB knows that there’s no better place than afterschool for young people to cultivate their passions while creating job market competitiveness.
Over the past several years, Amanda has explored a variety of afterschool clubs and summer learning programs that helped build her STEM interests and skills. After participating for many summers in her school’s Math Counts program, and seeing her math skills grow exponentially, she returned this summer as a mentor to younger students in the programs. Similarly, her hobby as a Lego enthusiast has provide countless hours designing and building space stations and rockets that are limited to her own, robust imagination.
When we asked Amanda if she LITERALLY plans to go to the moon, she said yes, but that’s only the beginning.
“I would say definitely the moon,” she said. “Mars is within my reach because our Artemis program is starting off this fall. Usually, people become astronauts in their thirties, so that would be around the time that they would start sending people to Mars,” said Amanda.
“There’s a good chance to go to the moon. If we can get a moon-base set up, that would be awesome, or even if we could orbit moon!” she said.
Amanda’s background is as compelling as her future career.
She was born to a father who grew up in Guatemala. Later, her dad attended the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he met her mother, a native Nebraskan. Amanda said that after getting married in Omaha, her parents moved to Guatemala, where they lived and worked.
Now back in Lincoln, Amanda’s parents are busy raising their family of eight children.
“It’s been interesting [having a big family]. I have an older brother who will be a senior at Wichita State, he’s studying aerospace engineering. I found out that I like a lot of the same things he does. I can learn from him and follow that same path,” said Amanda.
Amanda said that tries to serve as a role model for her four younger siblings. “They’re awesome. They really look up to me,” said Amanda. “When I do something, they’re like, ‘If Amanda can do it, I can do it!’”
Amanda said that her independence stemmed from being part of a large family.
“Eight kids are a lot to focus on. Even if I’m not the center of attention, I can get stuff done and learn on my own,” she said.
Amanda said she attributes some of her gumption to her parents.
“My parents are awesome,” she said. “When I say, ‘Oh my gosh, have I gone too far? Can I go any farther?’ They push me to the next step.”
Amanda’s affinity for outer space has been long encouraged by her parents. Her most recent accomplishment has been winning the Future Engineers’ and NASA’s Artemis Moon Pod Essay Contest.
When Amanda entered the contest, she said that her parents’ motivation helped her push through the unease.
“After I found out I was a semifinalist, I was almost sure I wouldn’t make the next step,” said Amanda. “I remember my mom saying, ‘You can literally do anything. Don’t give up. This is going to be the most important step of all. If you can do this part, you can win.’ I wasn’t feeling very confident. I said, ‘I am happy with what I won. I don’t think I can go any farther.’”
Well, she went farther. “I DID make the cut and I won!” said Amanda.
But that’s not to say that Amanda hasn’t felt alone sometimes.
“In seventh and eighth grade, I remember walking into [afterschool] trivia club competition tryouts, and I was the only girl, and I thought, ‘Am I in the right place? Is this where I’m supposed to be?’ I remember feeling a little scared. I was confident in my abilities but afraid because I was the only girl in seventh grade with eighth graders there.’”
Of course, Amanda isn’t alone in how she feels. Although the number of women of color in STEM is discouragingly low, BSB and the MGM Advisory board realize that we need Amanda’s voice even more.
Young people like Amanda make all the difference, not only in STEM, but for generations of young women of color to come. It is our intention to make sure that more young women feel included and supported in their desires to pursue STEM opportunities.
Although Amanda ended up losing the trivia competition, she refused to be discouraged. After not making the team the first time and losing to a boy, Amanda returned with a female friend. That time around, they both made the team.
But Amanda said that her successes can’t cloud some of the barriers she’s encountered.
“Going into high school, I saw how the gender barrier was there,” said Amanda. “When I was selected as one of thirty students for the American Math Competition, I remember walking in there the day of the competition. I just kind of felt a stare, maybe because most of the students in the room were boys. It was very subtle,” said Amanda.
A self-described quiet person, Amanda said that her male peers are sometimes surprised to see her taking an interest in STEM activities.
Amanda said that often a young women’s popularity is based on her extracurricular activities and her appearance. Unfortunately, she said, academics aren’t always considered “cool.”
Regardless, Amanda said she navigates peer pressures by balancing her autonomy with vulnerability.
“I’m a very independent person. Sometimes, I’m afraid to ask for help but when I do, that really impacts me. It’s a matter of ignoring those pressures. Sometimes, it’s saying to yourself, ‘If you don’t think I can do it, then I am going to do it,’” said Amanda.
“I show people what I can do and not hide in the shadows,” she said.