Project Exploration is proud to celebrate Women’s History Month by recognizing the female leaders who make an impact on PE students and in STEM broadly. From board members to PE’s Executive Director, these women are responsible for making STEM accessible for hundreds of students across the South and West sides of Chicago every year through their roles with our team.

Seeing women excited about and excelling in STEM is especially important for young girls, who often feel that opportunities in science, technology, engineering, and math is not for them. While women make up half of the total U.S. college-educated workforce, they only represent 28% of the science and engineering workforce (NSF, 2018). In order to change that, girls need reflective mentors and engaging, hands-on experiences which helps them get interested in STEM, build confidence in their emerging skills, and pursue STEM education opportunities and careers. Research shows that girls first start to lose interest in STEM fields around the age of 12 (American Association of University Women, 2000) and that girls report being less interested in STEM careers than boys (Riegle-Crumb et al., 2011; Robnett and Leaper, 2013; Farkas and Leaper, 2016). Traditional public science education models are ineffective at getting girls engaged in science, resulting in girls internalizing at an early age that they are bad at science or it is not for them.

 

Efforts by Project Exploration to engage young girls in STEM are especially demonstrated through PE’s signature Sisters4Science (S4S) programs.

S4S programs engage primarily black and brown girls low-income communities across Chicago in hands-on STEM activities to combat perceptions that STEM is for boys and allow girls to develop a STEM identity in a low-pressure environment . S4S positively impacts girls’ educational goals, career aspirations, and their confidence and attitudes towards STEM by engaging them as co-creators of curriculum based on their interests, and allowing them to work alongside female STEM mentors, like those you’ll meet below.

We’re always seeking more female role models to partner with us to serve our students. If you are interested in sharing your talents and story with our students, please complete our volunteer interest form.

Women in STEM at the Helm of Project Exploration

Because of Neicy Williams, WE ARE, WE MUST, WE CAN.

History with Project Exploration

I have worked with Project Exploration for 2 years. I started off as a lead for our partnership with the US Census, helping to raise awareness and get more people to complete the survey. Around this time, I also participated in the STEAMbassador program. Following this I shifted into my current role as a Community Liaison for Austin My CHI My Future where I am able to work with community organizations to improve experiences for youth and families in Austin.

Brief Career and/or Educational History

I am a recent Howard University Graduate. I majored in Legal Communications and minored in Community Development. Currently I am enrolled at DePaul University in the Experience Design masters program.

Favorite STEM moment or memory

My favorite STEM moment was a couple of summers ago with PE when we did a STEM Pop Up on our trolley bus at a local community center. I remember the students being so excited to participate in the activities we brought to share. Creating that genuine enthusiasm for learning is what PE is all about!

Who is your female role model? Who do you look up to? 

My female role model is Rihanna. I look up to her because she broke out of the box of expectations that others had for her and pursued something greater. Starting Fenty Beauty was impactful not only for her bank account but for women of color across the world who haven’t seen themselves represented in the fashion and beauty world. She taught me that you don’t have to fit the image or live up to the expectations of others. It’s more important to find what you are passionate about and pursue it to the fullest.

Favorite PE Accomplishment 

My favorite PE Accomplishment was our first Austoberfest. Austoberfest was an awesome Halloween event we held for kids and families where we had food, activities, music, and a haunted trail. The event had a great turnout and was very successful. I am proud of the Austin community collaboration that helped bring this event to life.

Favorite Accomplishment, in General 

My favorite accomplishment is the Black History commercial I had on ABC7 when I was 17. I thought it was so cool that I had a real commercial and it was even cooler when they used it the following year. More time to shine! haha

Because of Sarah, WE ARE, WE MUST, WE CAN.

History with Project Exploration

Been here since August of 2017

Brief Career and/or Educational History

Graduated from Carthage College with a Bachelors in Education. Worked with special education, 4k classroom, substituting all grades, long term substituted HS science. Worked at a benefits administration company until I came to PE. I also worked part time at a country club and bartending to make it through some rough times – plus it was fun!

Favorite STEM moment or memory

In 5th grade my class went to the Challenger learning center in Woodstock, IL and it was the most fun I had ever had with science prior to that. Before, it was books and notes but not DOING science. This was my first experience that science could be FUN!

Who is your female role model? Who do you look up to? 

My mom 100% – she is super human. Is there for everyone always. Her door is always open and is there to help whomever is in need. Where she finds the time and energy to do as much as she does, I have no idea. She never forgets a birthday, an appointment – she is there even if you don’t ask her to be.

Favorite PE Accomplishment 

20th Anniversary party – maybe not how we initially imagined it BUT it happened. It was fun and so many people came out to support and recognize PE’s history and the work that we do!

Favorite Accomplishment, in General 

Getting to where I am right now. High school Sarah did not see her life ending up even close to being like this. My kids, for sure! So blessed to be these two boys momma’s. I hope I can raise then to be good human beings and people who want to help and give back to the community and the world. It is a rough and tough world that everyone should try to help and make even a little bit better.

Because of Sharmila, WE ARE, WE MUST, WE CAN.

History with Project Exploration

Board member for the last 1 and half year

Brief Career and/or Educational History

Executive MBA from Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University. Masters in Mechanical Engineering, PSG College of Technology, India

Favorite STEM moment or memory

Leading Girls in Aviation program for United Airlines in 2018 . Visiting Boeing Factory in Everett

Who is your female role model? Who do you look up to? 

No specific role model. I believe every woman is a symbol of unique and distinct strength that she can lean into and leverage to her fullest potential

Favorite PE Accomplishment 

Bringing another board member to be part of the team. Introducing HDR corporation to PE through personal network – long way to go!

Favorite Accomplishment, in General 

Getting my MBA from Kellogg School of Management – my lifelong dream had been to go to a top MBA school in the United States!

Because of Dr. Nicole Williams, WE ARE, WE MUST, WE CAN.

History with Project Exploration

I started with PE as a facilitator.  While working at Mercy Hospital, I remember receiving an email about an opportunity to help teach science projects at a local school.  I believe it was Dunbar Academy.  After doing the session, I was hooked!  I sought to further my involvement with PE because I understand how important it is that women and people of color see other people who look like them in the roles of science and technology.  I myself was involved in a similar program emphasizing science while growing up in East St. Louis.  It is such an honor to be able to help.

Brief Career and/or Educational History

University of Illinois- BA English Literature/ BS Biochemistry

Favorite STEM moment or memory

Helping a student do a mock surgery on a pig leg and she finally “got it.”  Priceless

Who is your female role model? Who do you look up to? 

Josephine Baker
Christine Lagarde
Angela Merkel

Favorite PE Accomplishment 

Making 10 years as a board member!

Favorite Accomplishment, in General 

Becoming a physician.  While a freshman undergraduate at the University of Illinois, I decided to go into medicine.  Despite only having one semester of grades, the “advisor” told me I should consider nursing.  I politely got up and left.  The next time I walked in I let them know of my application to Medical School.

Because of Sarah, WE ARE, WE MUST, WE CAN.

History with Project Exploration

1 semester as Sisters4Science facilitator at Orozco Academy, 2 years as Program Director. Started new position as Director of Chicago STEM Pathways Cooperative in March

Brief Career and/or Educational History

BA from University of St. Thomas & M.Ed. from SMU. Decade of experience working in urban education, primarily as middle science teacher

Favorite STEM moment or memory

As the daughter of a STEM professional, I am fortunate to have quite a few memories that are STEM-related. My dad loves to talk to us about the weather and atmospheric patterns, geology, cell biology and anatomy, and all things airplanes!

Who is your female role model? Who do you look up to? 

My mom, Heather, and my grandmothers, “Sammie” and “Mimi”, are my role models. All three are selfless, patient, amazing cooks and hostesses, adventurers, extremely supportive, share an attitude of gratitude, and know how to have a great time living life!

Favorite PE Accomplishment 

STEM in the CHI – getting everyone who loves STEM together to create a fun experience, filled with variety, for kids in camp was pretty neat!

Favorite Accomplishment, in General 

With all the shenanigans going on in the world, just “adulting” feels like an accomplishment!

Because of Judy, WE ARE, WE MUST, WE CAN.

History with Project Exploration

I joined the PE Board in 2013 and have been Board Chair since 2015. I’ve also been in the classroom as a rocketry STEM Professional in several programs.

Brief Career and/or Educational History

Currently, I’m a Leadership Coach, which is both my career and my passion! I love it because I get to support business and non-profit leaders as they work to meet their highest goals. I have an MBA and a PhD from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

Favorite STEM moment or memory

A few summers ago, I worked with a PE project for high schoolers on the South Side. I loved seeing the students get so quickly engaged in rocket science! They built rockets, along with satellites to ride in the rockets and measure air quality. We spent a long, hot day at Sherman Park launching them successfully. I’ll never forget the excitement of the students as the rockets left the launch pad – and how proud they were at all they had accomplished that summer!

Who is your female role model? Who do you look up to? 

Natasha Smith-Walker, Executive Director at Project Exploration. Natasha never stops working to bring opportunities to the students of Chicago. She does not know what the word “no” means! If there is a way to help someone, she will find it.

Favorite PE Accomplishment 

When I worked with the rocket program on the South Side, I also built my own rocket. I launched the rocket with the student’s satellites inside. The rocket achieved 33,000 feet and hit a top speed of 1.8 times the speed of sound (1300 mph). The best part is that the rocket caught the attention of the PE community and brought in support from our donors that allowed for more programs the following year!

Favorite Accomplishment, in General 

I’m proud of the way I’ve kept re-inventing my career to keep life challenging, fun and full of learning. Every time I’ve accomplished a goal, I set the bar higher and kept going!

Because of Angelica, WE ARE, WE MUST, WE CAN.

History with Project Exploration

I began my journey with Project Exploration as an intern in the Summer of 2020 and continued as a Facilitator.The Drive and energy at PE encouraged me to dive deeper in the world of STEM! As I continued here, I then became the Virtual Program Manager for our [email protected] Program.

Brief Career and/or Educational History

I attended Harold Washington College Where I majored in Child Development and received my Associated Degree in Applied Science.

Favorite STEM moment or memory

At Project Exploration, we host a Reflection of Knowledge at the end of every year where students present their favorite activity done throughout the year. As a student presented their presentation slide she added her appreciation for the facilitators in the program and the time spent together. This reassured me I did everything I could to make the time we had a good one!

Who is your female role model? Who do you look up to? 

My female role model would be my mother! As an Immigrant she had to face challenging situations. She always has a huge smile on her face and is able to find the positive in everything.

Favorite PE Accomplishment 

To begin my journey with PE as an intern and grow to be a Program Manager.

Favorite Accomplishment, in General 

Being a first generation college student in my family.

These incredible women continue to work with dedication and persistence to end discrimination and the underrepresentation of women in STEM 

You can help them and the rest of the PE team and leadership to combat gender disparities in STEM by making a donation, or volunteering your time if you are a fellow female trailblazer in STEM. Complete our volunteer interest form to learn more about volunteer opportunities with PE, including our Sisters4Science programs, or make a donation to support PE’s work to build pathways to STEM opportunities. From the perspective of a PE alum, “a lot of the people I met were very down to earth, and I felt I could relate to them. I was able to hear that they were not straight A students in high school and they did not know what they wanted to do, but in time they figured it out and did it. They did what they wanted to do, no matter what people said or thought, and they made it so I believe I can too.”

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