Interview with Danielle Boyer – Changing STEAM Education One Robot at a Time

Written by Noa Fragneau

Danielle Boyer is an Indigenous teen, entrepreneur, educator, inventor and author living near Detroit who has been working in STEAM for almost ten years. She was homeschooled for most of her younger life when she thought she too could teach classes and be an educator! Teaching a Kindergarten class for a semester at 10 years old opened her eyes to the system and its flaws, especially in terms of accessibility, affordability, and diversity. This experience pushed her to want to do more. During her high school years, Danielle Boyer joined a robotics team which she describes as a “bad fit” due to the sexism she experienced. She is a college student double majoring in Electrical Engineering and Mechanical Engineering, still in the field of STEAM with a nonprofit and a fellowship. I sat down with Danielle to chat about her experiences, STEAM, and the world of education.

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Becoming an Educator

Danielle started teaching classes at a young age without knowing “how to address the students (she) was working with” due the cultural diversity in her city. She wondered “how to remain culturally competent, how to make sure (her) students are getting the services they need, how to serve students on reservations, how to do the best that (she) can do?” It drove her to join a fellowship with the University of Vermont, called the “Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental Disabilities Program”, in order to educate herself more on disabilities and advocacy for children.

Danielle Boyer, founder of the STEAM Connection – “When you’re teaching at 10, you’re not doing much so it just opened my eyes to things. It made me realize that there are a lot of possibilities and I could do more than I thought I could!”

NF: What does it mean to be an educator to you? How do you think you fit into this definition?

DB: “I see myself as an educator because I work with kids every single day in many different ways: one on one, in educational sessions, I write the curriculum and the books that I teach my students with and I work with other educators who write the curriculum that I also teach my students with. I see it as an ecosystem where I educate educators on how to educate kids, I educate kids, I educate my peers and younger people on how to mentor and work with kids. I see it as increasing accessibility and affordability for resources that kids really deserve to have in STEAM.”

NF: What are the factors that allowed you to be where you are today? How would you make it easier for others?

DB: “I have to say experiencing a lot of sexism and difficult circumstances on the robotics teams that I was on made me more comfortable with being uncomfortable with many STEAM environments. I was more open to stand up for myself and my students, to fight for the change that I wanted to see because a lot of the work that I do is based in accessibility and diversity which can be very controversial. Especially in the engineering sector which is very well known for not being diverse worldwide. I told myself ‘I’m going keep doing what I’m doing because I know it matters.’ I want to help them do the best that they can do even when the world is against them.”

NF: What do you do when you’re put into that position regarding sexism?

DB: “I joined another robotics team, and the environment was similar, I was the only upperclassman girl on the team of 30 kids. I thought I really didn’t belong but through that, I was able to start 20 initiatives during my senior year. I just take the criticism that isn’t useful and hateful comments I get on a daily basis and let them roll off of me. I try not to think about it because at the end of the day, it’s not productive in the slightest.”

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The STEAM Connection

“An educational kit can cost $400/500 USD which is not accessible for most of the communities that I work with. I wanted to create something that all students can access.”

NF: Talking about your nonprofit organization, can you introduce us to the STEAM Connection and its mission?

DB: “We create diverse, accessible, and affordable STEAM educational materials for young kids. We’re actually all student-run and we serve kids in many different countries. The robot ‘Every Kid Gets a Robot’ I invented has gone to 12 countries so far which is insane! We mostly focus on educational materials, teach classes, and have an educational podcast that I just started with one of my mentees Vinaya Gunasekar. We’re both environmental activists so our season right now is on environmental innovation!”

NF: How did the idea of ‘Every Kid Gets a Robot’ come to light?

DB: “It costs less than $20 and goes to kids for free. I’ve sent out more than 4000 robots in the past year and about 10 months. All the materials are made out of recyclable plastic and it’s biodegradable which is amazing because a lot of common 3D printed resources aren’t. It runs on a microcontroller called ESP32 Development Board and it’s WIFI and Bluetooth compatible so it’s very easy to work with. It serves kids from grade K-12. I think robots are a really good delivery system but they’re often way too expensive. An educational kit can cost $400/500 USD which is not accessible for most of the communities that I work with. I wanted to create something that all students can access.”

NF: You have been working hard to increase representation and accessibility in STEAM. Can you tell me more about it? What is the next step for you and The STEAM Connection?

DB: “I’m currently writing another book to promote representation in the children’s book arena because there is not a lot of accessibility right now! A new report came out from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Indigenous children are represented in children’s books around 1% of the time which is not fair at all! I want to keep trying to change that and make resources that kids identify with. I’ve been working with a publisher and I’m really excited about that! I’m also launching another robot named Twenty, in honor of my 20th birthday! It will be a free resource for everyone to access which further promotes diversity in STEAM since everyone can access it wherever they’re from!”

NF: What would you say to kids who think they’re not doing well enough in math and science, who don’t think they’re smart enough, to be in STEAM?

DB: “I encourage a child to complete a robot or a STEAM project and to try before they make up their mind. It shows them that they can do whatever they put their mind to! Often, the only voice telling them they can’t do it is those of outsiders. Maybe they were thinking about it in a limited perspective, maybe they were just seeing it as mechanical engineering when they could be a food scientist! For continued support I encourage girls especially to join all girls robotics teams or clubs because it can be discouraging to not have a support network who loves them for them and who wants to see them succeed in everything that they do!”

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Being a Woman of Worth All Around

Danielle Boyer, Founder of the STEAM Connection. Editorial use of the images is authorized.
“My students can benefit from what I’m saying and the experiences that I’ve had, they probably relate to me more than I will ever know. Talking about (mental health) can give them the confidence to pursue what they want to in their life, so I see it as going forward and talking about the difficult things.”

NF: Congrats on being one of the L’Oréal Women Of Worth! You decided to give your funding award to the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES), could you tell me more about it? 

DB: “A huge part of this program is being an actual woman of worth and finding your place, being your truest and most beautiful self. I never felt that way until I attended an AISES conference last year in Wisconsin where I gave a speech and did a robotics event. I realized how loving and beautiful everyone is because it’s an intertribal community from many different tribes and communities. It was that environment that truly made me feel like a woman of worth! And so, I thought about where to give the money and I thought “what do I want to accomplish in the next 15 years?” Donating to AISES was one of them and I actually could do that right now. So, I get to send $10,000 to AISES. I met our newest board member, Shawn Ray (Navajo), at an AISES conference last year. The community is such a beautiful and strong one.”

NF: As a college student double majoring in Electrical Engineering and Mechanical Engineering with a nonprofit, how do you make sure to have time for you and your mental health?

DB: “I get this question a lot and honestly, I always say I’m not very good at balancing a personal life and the work that I’m doing. I struggle with that a lot. I think that young people tend to put their mental health on the backburner and I’m absolutely no exception! I have depression and C-PTSD, and sometimes I just choose to focus on work and not on those things. But what I’ve been doing to improve that is start distance running, talking and social distance visiting my friends. That has been really helpful for my mental health, but I still have a long way to go.”

NF: Often times adults think young people are too young to understand what’s going on, especially in environmental activism; what would you say to them?

DB: “I would just say that these are issues that are going to affect us for significantly longer than will affect those who are older. We care because it’s our livelihood and out of the people affected right now are communities of color, so you see how climate change is affecting your family and friends first-hand and you want to make change. I get a lot of negative comments, especially being so young. At the end of the day, I’m thinking for myself and the communities that I work with and how I want to do the best that I can do.”

NF: Are there any good resources you think would be good for others to look into?

DB: “If you are interested in diversity and education, @ndnslp or Dr. Joshuaa Allison-Burbank is my mentor who does Indigenous book reviews. @inclusivestorytime amplifies the voices of authors who are creating diverse and representative children’s content. If you’re interested in educating young children on all things STEAM, check out my podcast @handsontechietalks. If you want to learn about Indigenous peoples and organizations, check out @indigenouspeoplesmovement, @nikitaelyse, and @aises_hq on Instagram.

If you want to support Indigenous artists, check out @indigenousintentions, my favorite store for bold beaded earrings @melancholynow, the awesome @billyjackets, or the beautiful Ojibwe studio @injunuitydesignstudio.

NF: To conclude, do you have any advice for young people who have great ideas but aren’t sure where to start yet?

DB: “I’m going to suggest, especially during the pandemic, to volunteer with organizations that have similar goals as yours and whom you align yourself with. You’re going to meet contacts and garner the knowledge you need for the work that you want to do, and better understand the issues that you care about! It will better help you come up with an action plan because if you don’t have a lot of contacts or experiences in the field you want to be in, you might not know where to begin and feel at loss. But when you have them to support you for your goals then you can do it!”

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Thank you to Danielle Boyer for this wonderful discussion!

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