While the world waits in fear of a new America under the Trump administration, a young 16-year-old Muslim girl continues to work on playing her part in fighting bigotry and anti-Muslim sentiment in her community. Feeling that there is a lack of interest and representation in computer science, engineering, and STEM in general among Muslim girls, Diamond Bar high school junior Zaina Siyed founded FemSTEM, a robotics scholarship program made up of eight girls of ages 10-15 to form the first all-female Muslim robotics team in the country.
Through her campaign, Zaina recruited girls who “hadn’t touched, let alone programmed, a robot” to compete in the FIRST LEGO League regional robotics tournament. For three months before the competition, the group met a few times a week at the Institute of Knowledge in Diamond Bar, a local mosque and community center. The group’s robotic creation was named Rujellalley (a phonetic spelling of the Arabic word for robot) which is described as a “brain” attached to four wheels covered by a Lego shell.
On their big day, Zaina’s mother was worried that the girls would face backslash, but instead, people began to come up to the group to provide support and offer recommendations on how to make the robot take a turn more successfully. After much hard work, FemSTEM won the night’s biggest award — for best overall performance.
Muslim Girl had the opportunity to talk to Zaina about her motivation to begin FemSTEM and the vision she has for the program.
Muslim Girl: What was the motivation behind the creation of FemSTEM?
Zaina Siyed: FemSTEM was a personal effort on behalf of my community, as well as a continuation of my experiences competing in and teaching robotics. I wanted to address the lack of opportunity for many girls to find a competitive STEM foundation — some families had simply never heard of any robotics programs, some couldn’t afford local robotics classes, and some had never thought to encourage their daughters to pursue a STEM career.
I wanted to see girls who shared my interests, were competitive and ambitious and could make themselves influential members of the community through STEM. Earning a respected career in STEM could also, in the long term, be an antidote to the inaccuracies of the media’s depiction of Muslim women (I think of the Ghazala Khan controversy). And, of course, I’d mentored and coached robotics teams at STEM Center USA for two years prior to creating FemSTEM, so it was my natural next step to create my own program.
How many students are part of FemSTEM and what are their backgrounds?
This year, we had eight scholarship students on team FemSTEM (I initially accepted 10; two had to drop out). The girls are all local to Diamond Bar, Calif., (from Chino Hills, Anaheim, Placentia, and more) and are all aged 10-14 and from fifth to ninth grade. We have girls who are Middle Eastern, South Asian and Latina, as far as I know.
What are the girls working on right now and how often are the sessions?
Our season is coming to an end, so the girls are just making their final preparations for the State Championship tournament we’ll attend on Feb. 11 at Legoland. They aren’t learning anything new, just improving their game strategy and enhancing what they had already built for competition.
How many leaders/teachers do you currently have — and is there a possibility for expansion?
FemSTEM is currently a one-woman show. I am the sole instructor and coordinator. I’ve dealt with media relations, fundraised, managed finances, gathered resources, made a custom curriculum for the program and more in my time. I’m lucky to have my family’s support though — I can’t drive yet, so I’ve depended on my mom to take me around, and she and other parents have always been near our practices as chaperones because I am a minor. I intend to expand to coaching two teams next year and using girls who’ve “graduated” from the program as assistants.
Long term, the mission of FemSTEM is to serve minority girls — I started out with the Muslim community simply because it’s where I have connections and had interest from families who couldn’t afford robotics. Making it a minority program will be a much more complicated operation, so it will take a few years. I intend to pass down the program with the help of my younger brothers (who are also robotics enthusiasts) and hopefully monitor the program in college, wherever I am. I will be taking a gap year after my senior year of high school so that I can take FemSTEM to other locations, even in smaller doses, and so that I can ensure a smooth transition.
In that time, I plan to travel to every state in which I have family and hold workshops or meetings to promote FemSTEM. I’ve been invited to teach in places as far as Palestine and Dubai (where I lived for six years of my life).
What are some of the challenges you’ve faced as an instructor/founder?
I’m lucky to have had a relatively smooth experience as the leader of this effort. Getting the team to develop focus and an appropriate (to my standards) work ethic was probably my only challenge. This was probably because my standards for them were high, but they reached them eventually and really made me proud.
What has been your community’s response to the mission of FemSTEM?
The community response to FemSTEM has been incredible. Particularly after our LA Times article was published, my community, as well as many communities across the nation, cared enough to recognize our accomplishments and share my story. I like to think that the mission I’ve outlined has provoked thought in the community in regards to the discussion of Muslim representation in the media, professional world and in STEM careers.
Being a junior in high school, you must be pretty busy with your coursework. Other than FemSTEM, what do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
For an entire semester, I’ve had close to no free time. I’m taking four AP courses, I’m captain of the varsity tennis team and am on the board of my school’s tech academy, among other things. My grades this fall were the worst of my academic career. But when I do have the spare hour or two, I enjoy watching Netflix, napping, playing with my pet rabbit, reading books about economics, psychology and philosophy and listening to music.
What is your vision for yourself five years down the road?
After I take my gap year, I hope to go to college somewhere in NorCal (Northern California) — Silicon Valley was my first home and where I ultimately want to be, career-wise. I may consider going to law school even with a STEM degree because reading and writing are my natural strengths. I’m considering majoring in Computer Science and minoring in Philosophy, but that could totally change. My long-term interests include cybersecurity, computational linguistics, artificial intelligence and the merging of political science and computer science.
To learn more about Zaina Siyed’s work and donate to her program, click here.
Images from Los Angeles Times.