Maia Weinstock knows a thing or two about women in science.

She's a science writer, researcher, and a deputy editor at MIT News, who fell in love with biology and astronomy at an early age. "I've always been interested in understanding how our world and universe works," Weinstock said.

She also has a self-described "mission" to inspire young girls to pursue science careers.


While the job market in science, technology, education, and math (STEM) is the fastest growing in the U.S., there's still a pretty big gender problem: Women are vastly underrepresented in STEM careers, making up only about 14% of engineers nationwide according to some estimates.

To help tackle the STEM gender gap, Weinstock decided to start in the toy aisle.

Why? Because according to her (and many other advocates for women in STEM), girls are often steered away from science careers at a very early age.

"Girls are discouraged along the way through a series of barriers," said Weinstock. "This starts from the day they're born, or even before they're born — parents set expectations for how they treat boys differently from girls."

Weinstock designed a set of Lego minifigures made to resemble five of NASA's most influential women.

Image via Maia Weinstock.

The design, submitted to Lego's "Ideas" page, needs 10,000 supporters to be reviewed by Lego designers. Currently, the "Women of Nasa" project has received support from over 5,000 people and has gotten shoutouts from NASA and the UN too.

The five women Weinstock chose are not all famous astronauts. They're a careful mix of recognizable faces and unsung heroes.

There's Sally Ride, the first American woman in space. And Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman in space.


Photo via Maia Weinstock.

There's also Margaret Hamilton, the computer-scientist who developed the in-flight software used for the Apollo moon missions.

Image via Maia Weinstock/NASA.

Then there's Nancy Roman. Known to many as the "Mother of Hubble" for her role in planning the Hubble Space Telescope, she was also one of NASA's first female executives, as well as a public advocate for women in science.

Image via Maia Weinstock/NASA.

And finally, Katherine Johnson, a mathematician who calculated the trajectories for the Mercury and Apollo missions, including the one that landed human beings on the moon for the first time.

Image via Maia Weinstock/NASA.

Weinstock hopes that seeing successful women depicted as iconic Lego figurines will inspire girls and boys alike.

"We need to value women in positions of power as role models," said Weinstock. "Giving girls toys that show them what they can be is one way to do that. But it's also extremely important for boys to see females in these roles when they go to toy stores, so that it's expected that men and women can and should be a part of the same fields."

Image via Maia Weinstock.

Plus, according to Catherine Hill, a researcher at the American Association of University Women, kids start picking up on gendered stereotypes by the age of 3. Those stereotypes can include the idea that construction toys like Legos are "for boys" and can ultimately discourage a girl from her initial interest in science and engineering.

"My LEGO proposal certainly isn't going to completely change the equation," said Weinstock. "But I do think it would help at the earliest, most impressionable stages.

For Weinstock, diversifying STEM is about inspiring kids as early as possible by paying tribute to the achievements of those who came before.

If the project is picked up, millions of kids could get the chance to learn about and be inspired by the women who've been at the center of our space program for decades.

Maybe it seems like a small step, but as NASA itself has shown us, one small step can change the world.

Connections Academy

Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

True

Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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