Jessica Rodriquez first wanted to be a zoologist. Then, an engineer and later, a veterinarian. Now, she’s pretty sure she wants to be a landscape architect.
Jessica isn’t an indecisive college sophomore. She’s 11 and a student at Collinswood Language Academy in Charlotte, N.C. Her mom, Monique, credits Project Scientist with Jessica’s wide-ranging career interests. “Project Scientist introduces girls to all these different careers,” said Monique Rodriquez. “It shows them they have options.”
Options they never even considered – such as becoming a biomedical engineer who helps fix hearts. How many kids even know that’s a job?
“We always tell the girls: The jobs you’re going to go for don’t even exist today,” said Alyssa Sharpe, the Charlotte-based national program director for Project Scientist and a Teach for America alumnus. Formed in 2011, Project Scientist is dedicated to encouraging girls, from pre-kindergarten through age 12, to pursue science in school and later as a career. Forty percent of girls in the program come from economically disadvantaged households and receive scholarships through corporate and foundation partners.
Duke Energy has sponsored 25 girls – five each year since the program’s inception. In fact, Duke Energy was the first corporation to invest in Project Scientist – a program that has trained 2,000 future scientists in Charlotte alone since 2013. The first cohort includes girls who are now 12 and have been part of Project Scientist for five years.
“Project Scientist exposes girls to the limitless career possibilities in STEM and fosters a growing student interest in STEM fields,” said Cari Boyce, president of the Duke Energy Foundation. “We employ thousands of STEM professionals, so we know firsthand how important it is for our communities to develop skilled workers who bring new thinking and innovation to our region.”
The girls are chosen based on teacher and principal recommendations. They must demonstrate an aptitude for STEM and have the support of a parent or guardian. It’s a multiyear commitment and the organization boasts a 70 percent retention rate. “We offer a safe and sacred space,” Sharpe said, “to pursue science.”
The girls stay engaged during the school year by going on expeditions – on teacher work days – to meet professional women in science. It’s important for girls to meet female scientists, engineers and doctors. A full 78 percent of school-aged girls have an interest in STEM, but women make up only 25 percent of the STEM workforce.
The biggest component of the program is the summer STEM Academy that takes place at UNC Charlotte and Johnson & Wales University.
Science lab as summer camp
The future scientists are immersed in STEM for six weeks. They learn from a curriculum curated largely from the PBS show, SciGirls and facilitated by credentialed educators.
Research indicates that girls with a high aptitude and talent for STEM subjects are not being identified at a young age. Gender stereotyping – when girls first get the message that math and science are for boys – can begin as early as age 4.
Project Scientist Founder Sandy Marshall experienced gender stereotyping herself when she was pursuing a STEM major in college. Now, as a mother of two science-loving daughters, Marshall is committed to changing the status quo for them and for girls across the country.
It’s not just for the benefit of the girls. It’s a societal necessity. By 2020, there will be 1.4 million new computing-related jobs, and women are expected to fill 3 percent of them, according to Girls Who Code.
This summer will be the last one for the first Project Scientist cohorts who joined in 2013. What’s next for them? Project Scientist is working with tech companies to get them connected to programs that align with their interests. The girls will also have the opportunity to serve as “near-peer leaders” to younger girls.
That’s something Jessica Rodriquez hopes to do. Her mom said, “She’s learned to code. She’s done experiments. Her group even went to Carowinds (theme park) when it was closed to study how the rides are designed and built.”
Roller coaster engineer? Now, that’s a career plenty of girl scientists might want to pursue.
Learn more or apply
Applications are being accepted for the next Project Scientist cohort. Spots are open for girls ages 4 to 12 in Charlotte. (There are also programs in four California areas.)