SISTEM one-on-one from Chicago, Illinois with Ms. Natasha Smith-Walker, Executive Director of Project Exploration: "Introducing Sisters4Science (S4S)".

Who We Are
Why Technology
Why the US & Why Africa


SISTEM one-on-one from Chicago, Illinois with Ms. Natasha Smith-Walker, Executive Director of Project Exploration: "Introducing Sisters4Science (S4S)".

Natasha Smith-Wlaker

Natasha Smith-Walker brings over 15 years of experience in youth development and education to Project Exploration. Her career has included classroom teaching and numerous administrative and educational roles in Chicago’s out-of-school time landscape, including serving as Director of Education at the James Jordan Boys and Girls Club and Family Life Center and as Mayor Daley’s YouthNet Director in the Rogers Park community. She began her time at After School Matters as a Regional Director, managing two north regional areas for the City and then transitioned to Director of Programs overseeing the day-to-day operations of all programming. As the Director of Special Initiatives she helped develop clear benchmarks with program partners and examine the feasibility of new programs to determine implementation. She has worked on several projects as a private consultant, including a national examination of public sectors in an effort to identify best practices of leadership, and a variety of city-level projects, including Chicago Ideas Week. She has provided technical assistance to small non-profits, specializing in developing quality assurance strategies, program operations, board development, and strategic planning. In 2013 she was approached be Project Exploration to help relook at the organization’s
programming structure and has worked for the past two years to stabilize the program models. PE programs target young people who live in Chicago communities that traditionally do not have access to STEM rich learning experiences. Connecting them with skilled facilitators and STEM Professionals PE brings hands on programming that sparks curiosity, interested and a connection with science and engineering. In addition, PE was recently recognized national recognition by Change the Equation as a STEMWorks program and leads a citywide effort to participate with 27 communities to pilot the national STEM Ecosystems Initiative under her leadership.

Q:  Tell us about Project Exploration’s Sisters4Science (S4S) program: what type of program is it and who does it serve? In addition, what schools participate in this program?

Smith-Walker: Sisters4Science (S4S) is an after-school program that provides middle school girls a girls-only environment to explore science with professional women scientists and STEM facilitators. PE’s longest-running and most successful program, S4S seeks to positively impact girls’ educational goals, career aspirations, their confidence, and attitudes towards science. Weekly sessions are led by PE’s STEM facilitators at Chicago partner schools and typically involve 8 to 15 girls per session. Girls in the program co-create the curriculum based on their interests. In the past, girls have elected to investigate topics such as anatomy, chemistry, engineering, genetics, geology, forensic science, and paleontology. Women scientists and engineers are invited to lead a hands-on activities in their area of expertise and share their own personal journey in STEM. In addition to science exploration, each session focuses on reading, writing, sharing thoughts with one another, and team-building activities. Girls are encouraged to think about and challenge gender stereotypes through the TrueChild curriculum. At the end of the school year, S4S girls participate in a Reflection of Knowledge, a culminating event where the girls present what they have learned in the program to their peers, teachers, parents, and partners. Currently, we are offering this program at Frederick Funston, Orozco Academy, Carter G. Woodson and Ariel Community Academy.

Q. How do you measure the effectiveness and success of Sisters4Science?

Smith-Walker: Project Exploration has always placed a high value on program evaluation, combining ongoing internal program evaluation with investigation by external evaluators at important milestones, including our 5-year and 10-year anniversaries.

Our goals for evaluation are:

·      Understanding how our programs serve our youth, their families, schools and other stakeholders;

·      Gaining insight into methods for providing continuity of experience for youth and families, working to engage youth in multiple programs over many years;

·      Improving youth development outcomes, youth engagement, and success in STEM fields;

·      Making the case for the success of our model for scaling and replication by other organizations, and influencing policy and best-practices.

Q.   Can you please share a few words about The Ten80 Student Racing Challenge and the STEMFest?

Smith-Walker: Recognizing the prominence of engineering in STEM education and careers, Project Exploration continues to work with partner institutions, schools, and individual engineers to build our Engineering Pathway. This yearlong afterschool program paired PE’s Youth-Science Pathways model with the Ten80 Education’s nationwide National STEM League, a rigorous automotive engineering curriculum and competition. A total of 59 students from three high schools learned the STEM skills behind car racing, while building their leadership, teamwork, and communication skills. A team from each school worked with STEM facilitators and visiting STEM professionals over the course of a year to learn the engineering concepts employed in car racing, and built their own model racecar that was entered into a nationwide engineering competition. In addition to engineering principles, youth developed skills in design, marketing, and presenting. All teams attended the citywide White Flag Invitational, where they tested their cars against teams from all over the city and surrounding suburbs. This program culminated in the participation of two Gage Park teams in the national STEM League racing finals in Houston, where they both finished in the top 15.

On October 16, 2014 this daylong event for 631 youth at the South Shore Cultural Center featured a “maker party” with science activities and information from over 30-50 organizations (including Chicago Botanic Garden, Adler Planetarium, and Northeastern Illinois University) and a Ten80 STEM League preview with hands-on engineering activities for school-based teams aiming to participate in PE’s Explore Engineering: Ten80 program. In line with the need to ensure access and opportunity to STEM rich programs, STEMFest served as the kickoff event for the Pathways to STEM success initiative, which aims to identify and promote best practices to recruit diverse participants, retain them through effective programming, and release them to the appropriate next step.

Q.   Finally, how can policymakers and the rest of us, increase the participation of STEM underrepresented groups (African-Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, girls and women) in STEM studies, professions and businesses?

Smith-Walker: Four out of five jobs in the US labor market require skills in science, technology and engineering. Nationally, however, African-American student interest in science majors and careers has dropped by nearly 30% since 2000. And the percentage of female students interested in science-related careers has dropped to 14.5%, compared to 39.6% for their male counterparts.

Computer science-related jobs are growing at twice the national average, but there is a huge gap between STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) related jobs and the number of young people who are studying to qualify for them. And this gap is hitting urban and minority students much harder than other populations. Expanding STEM education opportunities in minority communities is one key to helping young people rise out of poverty and filling the job gap.

High school girls are much less interested in pursuing engineering and technology than their male peers. In 2014, only 3 percent of high school females reported an interest in engineering, compared to 31 percent of males. In the same year, just 2 percent of girls reported an interest in technology, while 15 percent of boys expressed an interest in the field.

"Over the last decade, there has been significant national interest in improving STEM employment and education," said Brian Kelly, editor and chief content officer of U.S. News. "The U.S. News/Raytheon STEM Index allows us to chart our progress – or lack thereof. It’s clear that we need to focus our efforts on engaging the majority of the future labor pool – young women, Latinos and African-Americans – in STEM."

We need policymakers to make a concerted effort to recognize these statistics and support a push for all students to have access to high quality, engaging, hands on opportunities with skilled facilitators as well as professional mentors. This also means the corporate and business community must step up to provide necessary resources which includes programming support but also become program partners with agencies such as Project Exploration. Their ability to actively work with students creates a connection that far outweighs any kind of support a student can obtain. We need STEM Professionals, especially African-Americans, Latinos, Native Americans and women to contribute to the solution, our students today need to see someone that reflects who they are to begin to realize that they too can be welcomed into this community.


To read more ISTG Online Publication articles, please click here.
Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share on Google+ Share on LinkedIn