Seeing young women enthusiastically create, inquire, struggle, and persevere alongside strong female mentors is inspiring. Such was the backdrop when Natasha Smith Walker joined PE’s team as Executive Director in 2013. She met one of PE’s STEM Facilitators, Nedume, a premed student who had been leading a Sisters4Science program at a Southside Chicago elementary school. PE’s model is to bring in visiting STEM professionals who lead activities, share their career journeys, and build relationships with students to help them identify their own STEM identity. That day, volunteers from the US Army Corps of Engineers came to lead activities in engineering. Nadume led the girls’ interactions with the volunteers, and Natasha marveled as the girls moved when Nedume moved, leaned in when Nedume asked questions, and reflected Nedume’s excitement as they created and learned together.
The experience made Natasha reflect on her own experiences. When she was young, she was fascinated by and planned to pursue a career in architecture. The pieces seemed to be there – a mentor, a supportive family and teachers, opportunities to get involved. However, as inspiring as her professors were, her college classes killed her passion. Surrounded by largely white, male peers and mentors, she began to feel that there wasn’t a place for someone like her in architecture.
“What’s inspiring about PE programs and spaces is that wow factor. Seeing the triangulation between a STEM professional, PE’s facilitators, and young people as they do chemical reactions together, launch rockets, or hatch baby chicks – these are wow moments! Watching it click when students realize that this mentor who looks like them, grew up like them, and is working alongside them has access to such wow moments in their career – and that they too can be a doctor, rocket scientist, or engineer. That’s another wow moment,” says Natasha.
“I realized how important it is to find pathways to WOW opportunities for kids who wouldn’t otherwise have that chance. That’s PE – it’s those wow moments that sucked me in, and it’s why I’m still here almost 10 years later.”
These wow moments make an impact. Our data reveal a 42% increased interest in science careers, 20% improved participant attitudes toward science, a 20% improved confidence in engineering abilities and a 15% increase in youth development outcomes. Furthemore, a ten-year longitudinal study revealed that PE students are three times more likely to enroll in a four-year college than their peers, and over one-third of Project Exploration alumni major in science once in college.
Supporters like you make these wow moments possible. This year, we’re redoubling our efforts to engage more STEM Professional volunteers in PE programs and with our students. Make wow moments possible by volunteering your time or making a donation today.