Helping students find their ‘STEM identity’

One day in July 2022, Sophia Gomez, now a Junior at Colorado Academy, found herself performing an emergency appendectomy, managing trauma-related external hemorrhaging, and resuscitating a flat-lining patient during a medical “code blue.”

These were only simulations, but, says Gomez, they were amazing experiences.

Gomez was participating in the weeklong National Youth Leadership Forum (NYLF) session in emergency medicine, held at UCLA. The program, one of many in medicine offered by NYLF around the country, affords high school students the opportunity to step into the shoes of a physician and gain transformational medical school and career knowledge. Students test their personal and academic strengths in true-to-life simulations and hands-on clinical training, while gaining confidence and insight to shape their future.

CA Upper School math teacher and Grade Nine Dean, Dr. Camille James

According to CA Upper School math teacher and Grade Nine Dean Dr. Camille James, who did doctoral research on why some students don’t pursue careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), programs like these are powerful.

“So many young people, particularly those who identify as females of color, don’t see themselves represented in STEM,” she says. “The NYLF program helps them gain a new perspective and see their true STEM identity.”

CA offers numerous opportunities for students to pursue studies in STEM fields, including advanced computer science courses, engineering and design spaces, REDI Lab, and much more. Each year, says James, she takes note of those Upper Schoolers with a propensity for STEM, and she nominates several students, like Gomez, to participate in one of the NYLF summer sessions.

“These may not always be the students at the top of their class, but they are hard workers, creative thinkers,” she explains. “They are the ones who have that thirst for knowledge—the students in class who ask ‘Why?’. They are the ones determined to find the answers.”

At UCLA, Gomez was inspired by hands-on learning in a real hospital. Beyond dealing with simulated emergency room traumas, she got time to practice with the DaVinci system for minimally invasive surgeries, and she even earned top marks for her ability with stitches.

“I was able to apply so many values that I learned throughout my time at CA that I didn’t even know I had,” she says. “I was always thinking about creative ways to solve a medical case; I used my time-management skills to make sure I was balancing all of the work well and didn’t feel overwhelmed; and most of all I helped the people around me and built connections that I will never forget.”

“At the start of this program,” she continues, “I was still unsure if medicine was a career I truly wanted to go into. But now, back at CA, I am more motivated than ever to thrive academically in every environment I enter. I know that by doing that I am slowly getting closer to my dream of becoming a surgeon.”

James says that motivating students like Gomez is a personal passion. “When students tell me they’re not a ‘math person’ or a ’science person,’ I just think, ‘Show me what a math or science person looks like, because I don’t know!’ Here at CA, we provide so many opportunities for our students, and sometimes all it takes is a little push for them to realize that they can do STEM—anyone can.”