Teaching the Playbook: How Early Influence Can Affect An Entire Industry

The mentorship model asks those who are successful to pay it forward. So remember to stand on the shoulders’ of giants: ask for advice and be generous with giving it. It’s necessary if we’re all going to move forward.

4 min read

I recently attended Hacking Discrimination at MIT, a hackathon looking to prototype solutions to complex problems related to bias, discrimination, and racism. My team tried to tackle the problem of how under-represented and under-resourced students lack access to the STEM Playbook: a series of unwritten rules about how to get by in the world of STEM. 

The Playbook is hard to define. It includes tidbits like knowing that in college-level engineering classes, students always work together on their problem sets, or that prestigious, private universities often provide better financial support than their local, public counterparts. Here's something that I knew from the Playbook solely because my parents are professors: when you apply to graduate school in the sciences, you are expected to research and then reach out to professors you are interested in working with. This is not part of the official application process. My undergraduate advisor did not tell me this, nor did the professors who wrote my recommendations. This knowledge is part of the unofficial application process; it's in the Playbook.

Everyone agrees that many women and minorities want to enter STEM. A recent Microsoft study of European girls showed that between 11-and-a-half and 15 years of age, girls have an unquestionable interest in STEM. One girl from Ireland says, "I like science subjects. I know that I am talented in them and this boosts my self-confidence." These United States National Science Foundation Science and Engineering Indicators from 1985 through 2006 show that the percent of White, Black, Latino, Asian American and American Indian freshman intending to major in STEM fields all hover around 30%; there is minimal variation by race or ethnicity. 

Even Milo Yiannopoulos of Breitbart admits that women want to do science, even if many of us drop out during or shortly after college (leading him to the rather backward conclusion that therefore women shouldn't be allowed to study STEM at all.) 

But interest alone does not get you into a good school; it does not teach you how to succeed at that school; it does not tell you how to build a network—especially if you're a first-generation college student who doesn't have the benefit of a starter-network of friends and family.

One of the guys on my team at the hackathon was a mechanical engineer working at Lincoln Laboratories, a United States Department of Defense research and development center. It's a great place to work and getting a job there is no small feat. He grew up in Dorchester, Massachusetts and attended a local, mid-level university, the University of Massachusetts Lowell. He never considered applying to MIT, the more prestigious technical university in the same area, because he assumed he wouldn't get in and figured that he wouldn't be able to afford it anyway. But when he started doing internships and meeting university students from places like MIT, he quickly realized that he would have done fine at such a university; he was at least as smart as those other kids. He also learned that MIT would have provided financial support. 

These experiences with students and professionals from other universities taught him a lot about how to get ahead in his career. He learned that doing internships every summer was key to getting a good job after graduation. He figured out the Playbook, but only after he got to college. 

As a team at the hackathon, we focused on mentorship programs as a great way to teach the Playbook. The University of Maryland Baltimore County Meyerhoff Scholars Program is a shining example of how to be successful: over 50% of their scholars are African American and students enrolled in the program are more than five times more likely to pursue a STEM Ph.D. or M.D./Ph.D. It works because the experiences "not only help students to apply learning to the real world but also teach them how to find what they need to reach their goals." Unfortunately, raw talent or intellectual prowess is not enough to be successful. You need the Playbook.

The mentorship model asks those who are successful to pay it forward. So remember to stand on the shoulders’ of giants: ask for advice and be generous with giving it. It’s necessary if we’re all going to move forward.


Katy Gero has been lucky enough to work at two tech startups with female CEOs. A year after finishing her undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering, she slyly transitioned into data and computer science roles. A long time writer and poet, she loves getting people interested in science and technology and bridging the gap between the arts and engineering.

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