To inspire youth to pursue careers in STEM, Michigan educators break convention

When Dr. Sibrina Collins was learning math in elementary school, she remembers there was only one correct way to solve an equation. "Division, multiplication tables, you name it. Even if you got the right answer, if you didn't follow a specific procedure, it was wrong," says Collins, the founding Executive Director of the Marburger STEM Center at Lawrence Technological University

"Like so many other kids, I think that's how I was turned off to math. There should be more than one way to solve a problem."
Dr. Sibrina Collins
Though her experience was less than inspiring, Collins was in luck: her mother was a secretary at Highland Park Community College. Taking advantage of the free tuition, she enrolled in a chemistry class for non-science majors — it was a turning point for the future professor. She remembers thinking, "If this is all there is to chemistry, I'll just be a chemist."

Collins is one of many educators across metro Detroit working to get kids inspired to pursue a career in STEM much earlier than she was, by trading in rigid rules for collaborative, project-based learning — one where students know the real world applications of what they're learning. These programs recognize the need for more K-12 students in STEM, and in particular, girls and people of color, who are drastically underrepresented in STEM fields. 

"We have so many diverse challenges facing the country," Collins says. "Access to clean water, the environment, health, cyber security, cures for diseases that plague us. We need as many perspectives around the table as possible."

The Marburger STEM Center launched in 2016 to meet the educational and professional development needs of STEM learners. The center's many K-12 outreach events and programs work to engage students with STEM subjects through out-of-classroom, interactive, project-based experiences where students can observe the everyday applications of what they're learning. 

One such program was the Future City competition, where middle school students created a model of their future city using recyclable materials. Another involved a Microsoft engagement event called "Launch, Learn and Code: Girls EmPOWERED!" where 75 middle school girls from Detroit visited the Microsoft Technology Center in Southfield, attending coding classes, TED talks, and listening to panels where Collins and other women in STEM talked about their careers.

The center also joined with Sampson-Webber Leadership Academy in Detroit to put on a project where students constructed an outdoor classroom, getting hands on experience with construction, architecture, and design. 

"We have a responsibility to talk to these young people and encourage them," Collins says. "We know that not everyone is going to pursue a STEM discipline; there are different paths to success. Kids just need to know what's possible for them."

Razi Jafri, associate director of youth programs at the Henry Ford Learning Institute (HFLI), is also encouraging young STEM learners, particularly ones that might one day have a business idea.

Jafri leads the growth and implementation of HFLI's STEAM Lab curriculum, which immerses students in tech entrepreneurship. Supported by The Ford Fund, the Ford STEAM Lab — where the 'A' stands for 'art' — is an online hackathon-style curriculum, available to any educator or nonprofit professional who works with youth.  

The curriculum is incorporated into workshops where students ranging from elementary to high school learn how to design, develop, market, and pitch a business idea.

Jafri, who worked in the automotive and medical device industries as well as mobile app design and development before coming to HFLI, says one of the most rewarding parts of leading the workshops is that kids go from not quite knowing what an entrepreneur is to going through the steps of becoming one themselves.  

"At the beginning, the students don't have a strong concept of what an entrepreneur does," Jafri says. "But then we take them through the journey of developing an idea, building a prototype, developing a business plan, and presenting it to a panel of judges. Students often say 'I had no idea I could start a business,' but over the course of a weekend, they've done it."

Exposing and engaging children in meaningful ways that highlight STEM's importance in the real world is a big step forward in the effort to create a diverse, robust STEM workforce of the future. But there is another vital component: Kids need to see role models of their gender, ethnicity, and background as themselves to grasp the idea that they too can have the types of careers they're learning about.

Launched by the Michigan Science Center in 2016, the STEMinista Project aims to encourage girls' interest in STEM, in part, by connecting them to women who are already working in the field. These role models, or "STEMinistas," are available through workshops, meet and greets, and through the project's role model database, which features STEMista's answers to questions both serious and silly. 

STEM learning event for kids at the Michigan Science Center
The project targets girls in grades four through eight, a crucial window of time where interest in STEM fields has shown to dramatically drop. Cassie Byrd, the Science Center's chief learning officer, says role models keep more girls interested. "If you see someone in a career who looks like you, you're then open to the idea of seeing yourself identifying with that career," Byrd says.

Jafri echoes Byrd's sentiment, saying that he chooses a diverse group of speakers, mentors, and judges for his STEAM Lab workshops, many of whom are from the same communities as the students. "When kids can see people who look like them, who are from the same background or the same gender, I think it makes a big impact," he says. "Bringing it back to my own story, if I didn't have so many family members and people in my community that were like me that went into certain fields, I probably wouldn't have considered them that seriously."

In addition to its initial programming, the STEMinista Project has grown into a hub of resources for STEM learning. "We have deep connections to the field of education, to industry partners, to the government," Byrd says. "The idea is leverage all of our capital to support other organizations in reaching as many girls as possible."

The STEMinista Project is currently working on a Bosch-funded initiative to develop a tool for industry partners to offer meaningful field trip experiences, or, as Byrd puts it, to get rid of the "death by powerpoint" approach to student visitors.

"I like to call it a quick teaching lesson, some key things you need to know," Byrd says. "One important thing is that 10-year-old girls are social and collaborative. They care about making change in the world."

Jafri has similarly high hopes for his students. "At the end of the day, it comes down to amplifying these students' motivation, and amplifying their ambitions. For me, that's one of the most rewarding parts of the job."

The article is part of a series, supported by the Michigan Science Center, exploring key regional issues in science over the next five years. Read more articles from this series and others from our collaboration with the Michigan Science Center here

Photos by Nick Hagen

Read more articles by Amy Oprean.

Amy Oprean is a Detroit-based freelance journalist, comedy writer and storyteller. You can follow her on Twitter @AmyOprean
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