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Silicon Valley girl: how one teen is pursuing STEM on her own terms

To say that 16-year-old Shannon Heh is influenced by her environment would be an understatement. The San Jose, Ca. native grew up in Silicon Valley—the infamous home to *all* things STEM. Her parents are both engineers (who would frequently work from home). Shannon says, “When I was young I would often go to places like the tech museum or play with little gadgets.”

Her exposure to this community ignited her interest in STEM, which led her to take classes on programming languages in middle school. From there, she would go on to enter computer science competitions, mentor other young girls who wanted to pursue STEM and become involved with local organizations.

Pioneer engineer
Shannon was scrolling through sites online searching for summer research opportunities when she stumbled upon Pioneer Academics, an organization that pairs students to research projects who wouldn’t have access to them otherwise. Shannon credits her parents for motivating and inspiring her to follow her passions. “My parents, they really helped me pursue my interests and they really pushed me to go for all these opportunities,” Shannon says.

So, she applied and was connected with a professor that taught her about computer vision (a branch of STEM that works with image recognition and image processing). “I became really familiar with their program and was eager to join,” she says.

The butterfly effect
That same summer, Shannon completed an environmental science research internship, Stanford Earth Young Investigators, under the tutelage of a Stanford professor. “One of our tasks was to collect data on butterflies by going through a bunch of books and then recording data on them and also measuring their body sizes,” Shannon says.

The redundancy of entering this information sparked the idea for Shannon’s Pioneer project: to develop image recognition coding that could identify different types of butterflies.

“I proposed this idea to my [Pioneer] professor and, even though she doesn’t know much about earth sciences, she is definitely very knowledgable about computer vision so she was able to help me a lot in implementing computer vision into my design project,” Shannon says.


Shannon and her Pioneer Academics professor working on her research project.

STEM sisterhood
Shannon understands the importance of having a #girlsquad support system all too well. “When I was younger, in middle school and elementary school, there weren’t many girls doing computer science and I felt kind of lonely in a way because I couldn’t talk to anybody about my computer science interest,” Shannon shares.

Shannon found her tribe when she joined Girls Who Code, an organization that provides young girls with STEM learning opportunities and projects. “There are a group of middle school girls that I and a few other high school girls help mentor,” Shannon says. “Our main goal is to keep the interest of these girls in computer science and teach them the various applications of coding to other fields. And most importantly: Build a sisterhood.”

Lead the way
As Shannon continues to carve her mark in this field—she plans to go to college to study computer science with another field, like humanities—she’s also following her mom’s sage advice. “She said I shouldn’t be afraid to lead or be a leader especially when it’s difficult for women to step out, because there’s many barriers and prejudices against women.”

One way Shannon’s already doing that? By entering computer science competitions. “I’m always competing with guys, and people always think that guys are more talented at computer science than girls are. And that can sometimes offend me because of course I know that I could be as capable as they are,” Shannon says.

Are *you* looking to become a leader in science? Shannon's advice: dive right in and learn! And remember, to always support your sisterhood. "I'm interested in continuing my mentorship and teaching young girls about computer science and finding other ways to expand computer science to girls all over the world."

To learn more about STEM and opportunities near you, check visit Pioneer Academics and Girls Who Code.

Photos courtesy of: Shannon Heh

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by Shelby Newsome | 3/19/2018
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