From an early age, 16-year-old Zaina Siyed felt an absence of Muslim girls in the realm of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Wanting to change the dynamic, she founded the nation’s first all-female, all-Muslim robotics program.
“I aim to target stereotypes of uneducated or oppressed women,” she said.
Last June, Siyed was inspired to create FemSTEM, a robotics scholarship program currently offered to Muslim girls aged 10 to 14, in order to empower and create a positive representation of the Muslim community. She had noticed minority women, especially Muslim women, were grossly underrepresented in the STEM fields.
“My goal is to showcase the true intentions and feelings of the Muslim community through constructive projects meant to educate and promote discourse regarding social and political issues that we can address through informed advocacy,” she said.
According to the program’s official Facebook page, members of FemSTEM, who are chosen through an application process, “learn the fundamentals of robotics and programming while also developing their communication, teamwork and technical research skills in preparation for a FIRST robotics competition.”
The season starts in July and ends in November, when the team competes in a “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology,” or FIRST, Lego League tournament. Besides the tournament, the scholarship program provides additional classes and/or kits intended to help them succeed in the field, especially as underrepresented Muslim females.
“FemSTEM aims to redefine representation of Muslim women through involvement in STEM and, of course, provide girls with a much-needed foundation in STEM,” Siyed said.
Before starting FemSTEM, Siyed served as the youngest mentor and coach with STEM Center USA, the very place her robotics dreams took shape. In fact, she credits her active involvement in the field to Melissa and Lavanya Jawaharlal, the founders of the center.
“Melissa and Lavanya have been my mentors, teachers and enthusiastic supporters from the beginning. Any of my desire to use STEM for outreach—be it educational or social—can be traced back to years of inspiration they gave me to achieve my goals,” she said.
And inspired she was. In June of 2016, at the young age of 15, Siyed founded the nation’s first all-female, all-Muslim robotics program.
“FemSTEM was a continuation of my robotics career and the realization of my goal of inspiring underrepresented girls to explore STEM,” she said.
The program, which is affiliated with the Institute of Knowledge, an Islamic school in Diamond Bar, was well-received by the community. The GoFundMe campaign Siyed set up has already well-exceeded its goal and has nearly 300 shares on Facebook.
It’s thanks to the strong support of her community and, of course, her own genius, that Siyed is a huge success in the field. She created FemSTEM already holding numerous accolades — being the youngest instructor at STEM Center USA and a two-time state championship qualifier with awards for mechanical design as a middle school student, to name a few. She added one more trophy to her collection — the most valuable one yet — when last November, FemSTEM won best overall performance at the FIRST Lego League Tournament.
“I am so proud of my girls,” Siyed said.
Their big win became the topic of a Los Angeles Times article and the story of a young robotics pioneer began circulating around the internet. After the Times article received explosive attention, her name started to pop up in other places — she was featured on the official Facebook page of A Mighty Girl, “the world’s largest collection of books, toys, movies and music for girls.” The page was founded by two individuals who have long been involved in technology, public policy, women’s rights and environmental issues.
In January, the Greater Los Angeles Area Chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations named Siyed its SoCal Muslim of the Week as part of a series.
She also takes part in her school’s campus technology program, Brahma Tech. In March, the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT) selected Siyed and her colleagues to receive their coveted 2017 NCWIT Award for Aspirations in Computing for LA & OC Metro Section.
However, her inner trailblazer did not allow her to stop and settle.
Taking yet another step for the Muslim community, Siyed started an online interfaith campaign called 99 Love Letters to America—for the 99 names of God in Islam. Saddened by the anti-Muslim sentiment induced by the tense political climate, she wanted to spread messages of love from and to the Muslim community.
“The letter-writing campaign was meant to showcase the patriotism of the Muslim community that is widespread but not always depicted in the media,” she said.
The campaign invites anyone to post love letters to America on social media in support of the Muslim community, with the hashtag #99LoveLetters.
The planning for the campaign started when the Islamic Center of Claremont received hate mail two weeks after the election. The handwritten letter calls Muslims “vile, filthy and evil” and declares that Donald Trump would “cleanse America, starting with Muslims, and make it shine again.”
A spiteful message of that degree is arguably enough to strike fear into anyone, not to mention a 16-year-old teenager. Nevertheless, instead of shying away from her identity or fighting back with hate, Siyed resolved to do the opposite.
“I wanted to counteract hate with love,” she said.
Muslims are often accused of harboring anti-American sentiment due to terror attacks by Islamist extremists in recent years, and her goal is to deliver the message that Muslim Americans are, well, Americans.
“You’ll have trouble finding a Muslim in the U.S. who fits this characterization. The message is that American Muslims are really just American people looking to be well-represented groups who want to see harmony in a dignified nation that has offered so much opportunity for so many groups,” Siyed said.
Still, despite her efforts, she suspects the country will witness a political fallout.
“We will have political fallout to deal with, internal and external threats to address and a different perspective on the merits of contemporary democracy. That’s assuming we last the next four years,” she said.
That does not mean she has given up hope that the country could improve. However, she said that the United States must step up to protect its people.
“There’s still hope. I want for the country to recognize the reaches of its influence and magnitude of its decisions and act accordingly – meaning we should be a safe haven for those who deserve it, meaning that we should work to build bridges internationally and domestically, and meaning that our citizens don’t have to question their safety, their entitlement to various liberties, or the impact of their contributions to this country,” she said.
Stepping up requires one small step — literally — but Siyed has taken strides to empower her community and herself.
Through FemSTEM and 99 Love Letters, she has made an impact in the Muslim community, starting a chain reaction of inspiring and giving hope to not only fellow Muslim students, but young and old Muslim men and women.
Through this, she has succeeded in her goal to “inspire others, and for them in turn to inspire another.”