#SpotlightOnCLT: Project Scientist | SHARE Charlotte

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#SpotlightOnCLT: Project Scientist

Written by Holly Blackman    on February 10, 2021    in
Presented by AvidXchange Foundation
Project Scientist was the catalyst for Aida to choose biomedical engineering as her field of study at UNC Charlotte. Project Scientist has middle schooler, Bennett, conducting all kinds of environmental experiments at home. These are two of thousands of girls whose STEM interests have been piqued thanks to Project Scientist, known for its programs that challenge the status quo by exposing girls, regardless of race, socioeconomic status, and now location to quality programming centered around science, technology, engineering and math.

PS originated in 2011 and has grown from serving 5 girls in their founder’s backyard to nearly 3,000 girls annually across the nation. While previously focused on in-person summer camps at university campuses and year-round student expeditions to STEM companies, the non-profit switched to online camps and clubs last year because of COVID-19.

Project Scientist’s vision is to originate a diverse STEM talent pool by building confidence for over 20,000 girls by 2022. And this hasn’t changed despite the pandemic.

“As we were planning for the new year, we had a decision to make. Either we close the doors until we can be in person again, or we try to address some of the needs. We realized we have to serve the girls. We just had to figure out how,” said Brenda Vass, Project Scientist’s Chief Development Officer and a mother of two girls.

Project Scientist, validated by Harvard and UNCC, is helping to solve one of the biggest current challenges with virtual education - hands-on interactive STEM experiences. After surveying parents last Spring, Project Scientist pivoted to launch a highly engaging three-hour Virtual Summer Camp and this fall, new after-school virtual STEM Clubs, offering 90-minute of engaging programming once a week. The Clubs, which explore different themes each month, allow girls to experience the magic of science through hands-on experiments.

Girls from not only the Charlotte region but across the U.S. and as far away as Brazil and Switzerland joined together over the summer and throughout the school year to learn and collaborate in STEM experiences.

“STEM Clubs are a great way to still keep science in the forefront, to keep STEM in their hands, to keep their minds learning,” Vass explained.

Until this year, Project Scientist focused on girls ages 4 to 12. But when a mom of a Project Scientist alumna asked if her daughter could continue with the program, a new idea was born. A new Project Scientist mentorship program is in the planning stages for girls ages 13-15 to pursue science-minded internships and relationships.

Project Scientist is looking for female STEM role models, who they call STEM SuperStars, to interact with their students in STEM Club. These girls want to hear about different careers and relate to someone who looks like them. They understand that if “she” can do it, then “I” can do it. The STEM professionals share the barriers they’ve overcome. Many faced financial barriers and talk about how they were able to find funding for college. They are giving the girls a picture of the perseverance and the hard work it takes - including developing networks of people who can support you.

“Every interaction with our Superstars is intentional and based on the latest research about what drives and sustains girls’ interest in STEM,” Vass explained.

About 65% of Project Scientist participants receive financial aid in order to participate. SHARE Charlotteans can donate $50, which assures that a custom STEM kit will be delivered to the home of an underserved girl in Charlotte so she can participate in Project Scientist STEM Club. Students get to go through that STEM kit and do hands-on experiments with their classmates and teachers, virtually. Everything is supplied except scissors, which prevents girls from feeling that they don't have what other kids have. A donation of $300 provides her an iPad with cell service, so she can join the 2021 summer STEAM (STEM + arts) camps. The camps will open for registration soon.

As Brenda Vass explains, “We are not an elusive product. We want all girls to believe they have an opportunity to access our high-quality STEM programs. One of the unique elements of Project Scientist is that the girls experience a various array of STEM subjects that will help expose them to a wide range of opportunities for themselves. If you know of a girl that is interested in STEM, look at Project Scientist and see if our program fits your girl. If you can’t afford it, we encourage you to apply for financial assistance provided by our partners. We are so proud to work with funding partners like Trane Technologies, Google Fiber, TIAA, Duke Energy, and PWC to name a few.”

After COVID-19, Project Scientist will consider changing their business model to offer both virtual and in-person programming.

“We can’t touch girls through science programming all over the country and pull that back. The great thing is that our new and returning partners (foundations and companies) want to help in different ways--whether it is to close the COVID-19 learning gap, help provide access to high-quality STEM education to under-resourced or underrepresented groups, or maybe even create opportunities to impact economic mobility,” Vass said.

Many companies are not able to volunteer in-person due to social distancing, but Project Scientist has opportunities for leading STEM companies to give virtual tours to the students, explaining how their industry works and what it’s like working there.

“We create a diverse environment. That's how we disarm and dismantle stereotypes. Bringing our young scientists from all different backgrounds to do experiments together - girls who would never meet each other in other circumstances - once you know someone, you care,” Vass said.

If you or someone you know works with or has a company who’d like to get involved with Project Scientist, please contact Vass at Brenda.Vass@projectscientist.org.

This month's #SpotlightOnCLT: Bridging the Digital Divide is presented by our friends at AvidXchange Foundation