Give me an S! Give me a T! Give me an E! Give me an M!: Interview with "Science Cheerleader" Darlene Cavalier
This post is part of a week-long STEM Matters series. Thought-leaders, social innovators, and experts from around the country are sharing how and why science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) are critical to our abilities to solve complex problems across a wide range of fields, from climate change, medicine, economic development, space exploration, to the movies!
Cheerleaders don't always get the credit they deserve. So it might surprise you to hear that there's a cheerleader out there pursuing a professional career in science engineering.
You read that right. Darlene Cavalier embraces her identity as a cheerleader to advocate for STEM education. She earned her master’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania and prior to that, spent part of her tenure at Temple University as a pom-pom shaker for three-time NBA champions, the Philadelphia 76ers. But we're getting ahead of ourselves.
Cavalier pursued her first degree in communications at Temple University, took on cheerleading to supplement her income, and ended up at Discover Magazine, where she would eventually serve as a senior advisor. She is also the founder of Science Cheerleader, featuring NBA and NFL cheerleaders-turned-scientists and engineers who challenge stereotypes and inspire more people to consider STEM careers. The site has also spawned the popular science portal ScienceForCitizens.net. To add even more dramatic flair to an already fascinating story, she started out in the mail room.
In this exclusive interview with Cavalier, she tells Changemakers about her ascent in the sciences and why she's chosen STEM education as her new reason to rah-rah.
Changemakers: So you actually started in the mail room?
Cavalier: I did. My job was to receive messages and mailings from the community and bring those messages to scientists. I was struck by how normal and nice they were and how I actually understood what they were talking about.
I was literally in the mail room, though. And the people I was working for knew that I could write and edit. They knew I was very interested in the materials that were coming in and they asked me to do some top-line editing. I got absorbed by it.
Maybe two years later, Disney purchased Discover Magazine and they needed somebody to work on both the education programs and their awards programs. Because I had been doing all the grunt work and was moving up the ranks, I was a natural candidate.
Fast-forward ten years, I'm the head of the technology awards program and meeting lots of very cool people I wouldn't have been able to know were it not for that job. People like Story Musgrave, who helped fix the Hubble telescope and has logged more time in space than anyone in the world; Marvin Minsky, the co-founder of MIT's Media Lab; Bran Ferran, the head of Disney Imagineering; and Sally Ride, America's first woman in space.
Changemakers: Some pretty influential STEM representatives.
Cavalier: They really are. Meeting these people and having real conversations put the sense of responsibility in me. I was exposed to these really cool things. I would come back and tell my friends and family about these people.
But I felt there was a degree of unfairness, that because of the luck of the draw, I got to know these people. I thought, there's no reason why my brothers and sisters who didn't have an opportunity to go to college for a number of different reasons, who are just as smart, just as curious, and just as capable, shouldn't be exposed as well.
That's when I decided I wanted to find ways to open up opportunities for others to learn from the brilliant minds working today. I want people who are not formally trained in science to learn more about it and learn from it, to get information that is authentic, down to earth, and digestible. I was committed to make that move with my editor-in-chief at Discover, who challenged me redefine my own role in helping teach others and make them more science-literate.
Changemakers: Let's talk about the importance of science and technology in education. What do you see as the challenges to furthering STEM learning?
Cavalier: I think the biggest threat to STEM education is that we live in a very risk-averse community. Especially when the funding is coming from the government. My work has combined my love of science with my cheering.
I've heard things in response to my interests like, "I wouldn't want to make it look like we're supporting only cheerleaders." Well, it's not that at all. It's about supporting valuable vehicles that reach the 3-4 million cheerleaders out there who want to connect, who want to be inspired by someone like them.
It's the way life goes; people want to relate. It's like professional athletes inspiring young ones by leading by example.
Changemakers: Were you upfront about your cheerleading as you were working your way along the ranks at Discovery?
Cavalier: This is not a group that many people expect to become scientists — or to even have the interest — but trust me, those people are wrong. Cheerleading is a community-building tool.
It wasn't until I was already established in the science community and in my profession that I "came out" as a cheerleader as well. I didn't want to be misjudged. Now I think it's important to make people at home in both careers by bringing them together.
Changemakers: What advice do you give young girls to help them gain an interest in science?
Cavalier: We have to be willing to try new things, or we'll always have the same message and same tone and same lack of success with so many of our education programs. That message comes in different forms.
I've seen a lot of projects work and fail. My goal was to bridge the gap between regular people (who may not know yet that they have an interest), scientists, and government policymakers.
I started ScienceCheerleader to rally. I wanted to break down barriers. There are so many thought leaders out there with the potential to inspire.
I want to playfully challenge stereotypes and make it clear to the science community that we don't all have to talk the same language to be able to connect and understand the same interests. Why can't a blonde, tan cheerleader with a southern accent be a neuroresearcher at Vanderbilt? That's a real person, a Tennessee Titans cheerleader who missed a game to speak with young girls at the USA Science and Engineering festival about careers in science.
They should be out there more. You name a city: San Francisco, San Diego, Washington, D.C.—if there's a professional cheer squad there, there are science cheerleaders there. There need to be easier ways to get them to speak with young girls and inspire them. There are girls who email me, wanting to start their own chapter as science-promoters.
Want to continue the conversation? Join Ashoka Changemakers, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, and The Opportunity Equation for a Twitter #SocEntChat on July 20th from 3-5pm EDT to discuss how innovation in STEM education can create a stronger future for our students and our communities. Remember, the deadline for our Partnering for Excellence: Innovations in Science + Technology + Engineering + Math Education competition is August 3rd!