Gender inequity in STEM classrooms is something that Sarah Milianta-Laffin does not find acceptable. When she started teaching at ‘Ilima Intermediate School in 2017, she was concerned that about 75% of her students in her science and computer science classes were boys. She explained to her colleagues that she became a teacher to ensure that more girls and children of color participated in STEM, and this commitment to equity is foundational in all her work.
Milianta-Laffin networked with local elementary schools, doing career day presentations, and virtual calls, all in the name of getting more girls involved in STEM. She has brought students to speak to the Hawai’i Board of Education about the importance of getting more girls involved in STEM. As of Fall 2021, almost 50% of her students are now female. The feeder high school also reports that more girls are registering for computer science than ever before.
Her work on gender equity in STEM does not stop in her classroom. Milianta-Laffin is a member of the Hawai’i Department of Education Computer Science Team, helping to craft policies and curriculum that are more inclusive. She also serves as the Communications Chair for the Hawai’i Society for Technology in Education, where she was instrumental in getting teachers to submit testimony for ACT 158 to the Hawai’i State Legislature in 2021, which passed, earmarking special funds for computer science education encouraging female students to get more involved. A champion of gender equity, Milianta-Laffin's work follows in the legacy of former NEA President Mary Hatwood Futrell, who advocated for women’s rights throughout her career leading ERAmerica, NEA, Education International, and the George Washington University Graduate School of Education and Human Development.
Milianta-Laffin's work toward gender equity for her students expands beyond access to STEM classes. As the adviser for her school’s Genders & Sexualities Alliance, she cultivates a caring environment. As she stated, “Students don’t need a perfect teacher—they need one that cares enough to create space for them to be who they are.” From this philosophy came her signature issue: addressing period poverty.
When a student bled through their clothing and was bullied for it, Milianta-Laffin worked with her student clubs to start a free “Menstruation Station” on campus. All students can now get free period products if they need them. As the students learned more about the period poverty problem in school, they wanted to do more.
Milianta-Laffin connected her students to Hawai’i State Representative and former teacher Amy Perruso in 2019, and she helped them write a bill for free period products in all public schools. Perruso introduced to the legislature in January 2020, and Milianta-Laffin took students to the Capitol to testify on the bill, which received positive attention. As one of her students said about the experience, “I’ve never had a teacher like Mrs. Mili. She makes me feel like I can do anything. I never thought I’d testify on a bill. I see now how period poverty hurts students and why it should be fixed. Now I want to go to law school so that I can help future generations of students have safe and more equal schools than we have right now.” Milianta-Laffin continues to advocate for the cause so that it will pass in an upcoming legislative session. Her tireless work for gender equity in STEM and health started at her school, but she has influenced positive change for these issues across Hawai’i and nationwide.