STEM night workshop inspires budding scientists and their parents

It’s just before 6:00 p.m. on a school night and about twenty-five youngsters ages 8 to 14 are seated at long tables, giggling, chattering, squirming in chairs.  Some parents are in attendance. One can feel the restless energy; something exciting is about to happen.

Chaka Dorcean walks to the front of the room, raising her arm above her head. The children see the signal and each begins to raise his hand in the air. A girl nudges a boy talking next to her who quiets and raises his hand in the air.

“What does this mean when you see this?” Dorcean says indicating her raised arm. The room becomes quiet.

It is STEM night at the Riverview Community Center. Dorcean, who works for the Chemical Education Foundation, presents this bi-monthly workshop sponsored locally by Eastman Chemical Company and New Vision Youth, titled “You Be the Chemist.”  The workshop is open to children and their parents in this South Kingsport community.

Almost all the students attending the workshop are from underrepresented minorities in the STEM fields: female, African-American, or Hispanic. Dorcean has the students conduct experiments with the help and encouragement of the adults in the class. Tonight, they are learning the concepts of energy, thermal energy, and heat by using plastic bags, bowls of freezing ice water, and shortening to demonstrate how blubber protects sea animals from extreme cold.

Dorcean hopes the children will have fun with the science concepts they explore and want to pursue science as a career. She acknowledges that sometimes minority children are fascinated with entertainment and sports.

“I know sometimes we always wanted to be football players or actors or actresses,” she tells the children, “but just in case those things don’t work out, what can we do and do well? What are you passionate about?” She asks the children if there is something that they love to do. One boy, TJ, says he loves to play video games. “Do you know that you can find a career where you can work on games all day? Behind the scenes. Where you can create games, because it really all is mathematics. Wouldn’t you love doing that all day, playing games?” TJ nods excitedly.

Workshops and after-school programs like these are being conducted all over the United States to expose children to science and math. Studies show that early and consistent exposure to science and math has a big impact on whether students choose careers in the STEM fields. One study in The American Research Journal titled “Why Students Chose STEM Majors: Motivation, High School Learning, and Postsecondary Context of Support” concluded that early exposure to math and science and early success in math had a particularly positive impact on women and underrepresented minorities in choosing a STEM career.

According to the US Department of Commerce, STEM occupations are projected to grow by 17.0 percent from 2008 to 2018, compared to 9.8 percent growth for non-STEM occupations. Currently, there are not enough students pursing degrees in STEM fields to fill those projected job openings.

A report released this year from The National Science Foundation found that college degrees for women have risen since 1995, but few of those degrees are in engineering, computer science, or physics. The same report stated that white men were half of all scientists and engineers employed in the field. And, even though minority men are scarce in the STEM fields, there were more men than women of any ethnic group working in science and engineering occupations. Asian women and underrepresented minority women together accounted for 1 in 10 persons in science and education occupations.

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In response to these studies, science foundations, corporate sponsored workshops and non-profits began providing supplemental STEM education targeting minorities and girls. Groups like Black Girls Code, founded by electrical engineer, Kimberly Bryant, to teach Black, Latino, and Native American girls computer coding; Girls Inc.’s Operation SMART program, an after-school program focusing on the sciences; and summer camps sponsored by The Society of Black Engineers..

Be Your Own Chemist and programs like them are helping to instill a love and understanding of science, math, and technology in youngsters, but they still need the support of parents.

Victoria Cantu, a software engineer for USAA, credits her mother, who saw that she had an aptitude for math at an early age, for her choice of career. “She was just focused on me getting a good education and she pushed me if I had an interest in it. I give a lot of credit to her honestly.

“I really enjoyed math in elementary, middle school, high school and that kind of drove me into the programming classes.”

Cantu’s two sisters are also in the sciences: one is a nurse and the other works in biomedical research.

Dorcean, who is African-American, cautions the minority parents in the workshop about inhibiting their child’s curiosity in science by worrying too much about the mess they may make while exploring science. Both Dorcean’s parents were engineers for IBM.

“A lot of time why our children are not exposed to STEM fields is because of our lack of education,” she tells the parents. “We don’t want them to make a mess with the slime. We’re fussing at them about ‘put that away,’ ‘don’t make a mess’. Or even when they are attempting to try to do things, we’re standing there controlling what they’re doing, because we don’t want them to make a mess. So, we put a fire extinguisher out on the very gift that may be given to them for them to be great.”

Science and discovery can be messy. That is why the You Be The Chemist workshop encourages parent involvement. The parents participate in the experiments.

Miaisha Wadsworth brought her ten-year old daughter, I’yana, to the You Be the Chemist workshop. For her, this is a follow-up to the summer program offered by the Chemical Foundation.

“The reason I send I’yana to the STEM program is because she wants to be a scientist and is always making stuff around the house,” she said. “Plus, it gives her a bigger picture of what kind of things she can get into once she is older.”

At the end of the workshop, parents receive a blue vinyl You Be The Chemist branded pouch with the usual tchotchkes: a pencil that changes color, a magnetic refrigerator clip, a magnifying glass, but most importantly a thumb drive with age appropriate experiments they can do at home with their kids using normal household items. Home experiments that will extend their child’s learning beyond this workshop until the next.