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Building a Community within STEM: An unexpected result from our Latina SciGirls program

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In 2016, the Children’s Science Center?was selected as one of sixteen science centers from across the U.S. to receive a grant from Twin Cities Public Television and the National Science Foundation to implement a program for young Latinas over the course of three years in conjunction with PBS SciGirls. We were confident that we could provide the girls in the program a fun, unique educational experience, but the unintended outcome of creating a supportive and caring community for these young girls, and the overall positive impact on staff and volunteers exceeded our expectations.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics 2012 report, Higher Education: Gaps in Access and Persistence Study, only 3.5% of bachelor’s degrees in STEM were earned by Hispanic females in 2010. This systemic underachievement in STEM can be attributed to several issues including: limited awareness, opportunities, and resources; existing perceptions about STEM; and lack of family involvement. Our Latina SciGirls program to begin tackling this important issue.

Latina SciGirls is a free program for Hispanic girls in grades 3-5 and their families that takes place twice annually over the course of several weeks at the Children’s Science Center Lab in partnership with local Title I elementary schools in Northern Virginia. Latina SciGirls is a culturally responsive program designed to address barriers that prevent Hispanic girls and their families from engaging in STEM and to promote a positive STEM identity. Critical elements of the program provide young Latinas with opportunities to engage with Latina STEM professionals to foster mentoring relationships and a parent education component to support their daughters’ interest and achievement in STEM.

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Latina SciGirls program begins with an open house event held at the elementary school. Students, parents, and families meet program staff and the Latina STEM mentors while participating in hands-on STEM activities. Each subsequent weekly session covers a different STEM topic: physical sciences, environmental science, engineering, forensics, biology, and chemistry. The Fiesta de la Familia event celebrates the end of the session with families, girls, program staff and the Latina STEM mentors for a night of hands-on STEM activities. The goals of the program are to increase access for Latinas and their families to positive STEM programming, and promote positive STEM identity development. To ensure regular attendance of the Latina SciGirls program, the Center provides complimentary dinner and transportation each week for the duration of the program.

Over the course of each session, the Center’s staff watch as the girls’ confidence in STEM grow. Our staff take pride in their ability to create a warm and safe environment where the girls feel empowered to take risks and share their thinking while exploring STEM. The girls are introduced to female role models that they would not otherwise encounter. Having access to professional Latina mentors who share their own stories of success and failure has proven beneficial to the program. Although the program focuses on STEM, the girls practice working collaboratively, and building relationships among peers and adults — important life skills for every child’s future. We hope the girls take this initial spark and continue their investigations into the world around them, especially as they enter the crucial middle-school years when STEM interest statistically plummets. We believe each girl leaves the program open to new experiences, ideas, and people, with increased confidence and a stronger sense of self. Many of the program’s alumna seek out additional STEM experiences to grow their newfound interest.

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What started out as a program opportunity has evolved into a passion project. The Children’s Science Center has served over 100 young Latinas since 2016 and is grateful to Twin Cities Public Television, General Motors, and Leidos for their sponsorship. Latinos comprise 17% of Northern Virginia’s population. With this population steadily increasing, the Latina SciGirls program will continue to be in high demand. As the Center moves forward with the capital campaign to build a full-scale science center that will more adequately serve the region’s families, we also look forward to expanding the reach of significant programs like Latina SciGirls.

At the core of the Children’s Science Center’s educational mission is a dedication to meeting the needs of all children, in particular reaching underserved and economically disadvantaged children who traditionally do not have access to private enrichment opportunities. The Center impacts over 70,000 annually with its community programs and the Children’s Science Center Lab. The vision of the Center is to build the region’s first world-class children’s science museum on donated land in Dulles, VA.

The Center is grateful for the enthusiastic participation of a community of volunteer mentors, who have come in to lead and facilitate our STEM activities and tell their own stories of success and failure. STEM mentors have included women from NASA, USDA, PBS, FBI, and the Virginia House of Delegates. There are many opportunities through the Center to volunteer and make an impact on our local community. Information can be found here.

After-School All-Stars DC: Helping students become more active, healthy and empowered

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Ward 8 is consistently burdened with the highest crime rates and lowest median incomes out of all wards within Washington DC, and while these instances are somewhat commonplace, the impact continues to be devastating. No group has been impacted more than the youth of the surrounding neighborhoods. Recent violence included a fatal shooting of a high school freshman, and a large fight immediately outside a DC public school called Somerset Prep DC. Somerset is one of seven school sites that After-School All-Stars Washington DC (ASAS DC) serves. While these events were occurring in Mid-May, our students at Somerset Prep DC, Leckie Education Campus, Charles Hart Middle School and John Hayden Johnson Middle School were provided a safe environment within their schools, and an opportunity to enrich themselves through education.

After-School All-Stars provides comprehensive after-school programming to middle school students in neglected regions of the country. The DC chapter provides opportunities for students to participate in dynamic courses at no cost to them, and that were not previously available at their schools (e.g. drone engineering, robotics, healthy cooking, yoga, and music production to name a few). It also provides a safe space for our students during the most dangerous time of day, between 3-6 PM when young people within the community are most vulnerable to nefarious activities.

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But despite our in-school programming, tangible divides and bitter rivalries continue to permeate between the four schools we serve in Ward 8. This Spring our staff took it upon themselves to create events outside of our traditional programming, with an express focus on bridging the divide between the students at these schools. ASAS DC held a “carnival” Ward 8 field day event in response to the growing tension, where over 100 students and 25 parents were in attendance. Students participated in games, enjoyed performances from their peers, and were provided a chance to foster meaningful friendships with each other.

Beyond spending time together, we also tie in our own values and purpose into events/initiatives. Two weeks after the field day event, students from the four Ward 8 schools gathered at Oxon Run Park, in the heart of South East DC. They participated in a clean-up project to pick up trash and improve the appearance of the park itself. ASAS DC students also completed several community-building activities that required collaboration, and expelling negative preconceptions about their peers from other schools. Most importantly, each student was given an opportunity to share their thoughts with the larger group on how they would solve these issues facing their neighborhood. Profound and meaningful sentiments were shared, with the consistent theme being that they should work together and embrace one another in the face of division and violence.

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ASAS DC is proud to serve the students of this diverse and vibrant community, and as we grow and build relationships throughout DC our hope is to bring these opportunities to every middle school student within the District.