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Preparing Girls to be Future Scientists

December 22, 2020

Abby Sciuto working the behind the scenes of murder investigations in her fictional crime lab were Cynthia Chapple’s favorite parts of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) television series. Chapple had always been good at math and was inspired to pursue a degree in forensic biology due to “Abby’s” lab work, along with growing up on the southside of Chicago, made her want to improve society by being a part of a solution to crime and violence and being on the side of doing something positive in society.

Chapple graduated from the Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) with undergraduate degrees in Chemistry and forensic and investigative science and earned a master’s degree in Chemistry with a focus on physical chemistry from Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville (SIUE). 

She took her love for math, science and getting her hands dirty and applied it to learning and challenging herself. She knew she didn’t want a job that was the same every day. The idea of being able to problem solve “on the fly” was exciting to her. She was first interested in biology which is the study of Deoxyribonucleic Acid (DNA) but it didn’t give her the variety she wanted to incorporate her math skills, instead, finding that opportunity in Chemistry since it’s materials and drugs she said. In school her interests expanded to firearms, explosives, and forensic microscopy. She also learned about trace evidence and became interested in materials and fiber analysis. She liked the idea of microscopy and using a variety of microscopes to visualize “really, really small evidence.” 

The most interesting part about being a scientist is the idea of using science to create something new, repurpose something that already existed or to solve a problem that is going to help people to improve the world that we live in. “The idea of chemistry, science and being a scientist is asking the question, how can I help? How can I take all of my natural skills of being inquisitive, curious and wanting to be challenged and do something that is going to be helpful to society,” she said. 

After graduate school she worked as an industry chemist where she applied research looking at electrical and electronic applications for market sectors when she decided to get involved in the community and thus her nonprofit took hold. 

Scientist to Entrepreneur

She never considered herself an entrepreneur since she didn't set out to start a nonprofit. Her intent was to do good work in the community by using her skills as a scientist to help glide and navigate building out the program without her really recognizing that it was entrepreneurially being done. She also used her background and experience to support girls from similar backgrounds to get them to understand there is a place in science for them. “It was passion meets opportunity. I had expertise, a little bit of know-how and the opportunity to do work in the region that wasn't being done at a very small community local level,” she said.

When she started Black Girls Do STEM (BGDSTEM) she purposely chose to be a community based, community focused organization to eliminate the accessibility gap of getting science to the students, thus creating the mobile program that takes the programming to the students and their community. 

Chapple said the program is unique because the students will never be on site at a university, though they do encourage university partners. The programming will always take place locally at a community site such as a recreational center in the community, or a school that they want to serve. This will make sure that the program stays accessible to the students that are most in need and are part of that local public education system that doesn’t have access to broader, bigger STEM programming that is offered through some other organization or entity. For now, the programming is virtually as a result of the COVID-19. 

Her goal with the BGDSTEM program is to give the girls a sense of belonging by not taking them out of their environment. They don’t know how to engage since it feels foriegn to them, she said. It’s important to keep the students in their community since transportation is also a huge issue since the program participants are first-generation, lower socioeconomic student populations. The recreation center in their community is the best place to cultivate a good space for learning. The students have a familiarity with the environment since this is where they play basketball and hang out with their friends, so it already feels like home to them, she said. 

“I think sometimes we take kids out of their environment, we take them to a fancy university and tell them to be on their best behavior. They show up and they don't know how to engage, even if it's a phenomenal program because the environment feels so foreign to them. I think that's also something to be said about the sort of cultural significance that we're keeping by keeping kids in their communities and schools,” she said. 

She started promoting  BGDSTEM by speaking with directors at community sites asking if they would be interested in the program resulting in positive feedback. She then created an online campaign raising awareness about the issue of underrepresented minorities with specificity on black women in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). She posted about their accomplishments and informed social media followers of the underrepresented groups in science and their progress and also the progress yet to be made. From there, she built community partners that allowed programming in their centers and hosted a variety of organizations. They set up STEM tables and did workshops and demonstrations with kids throughout 2018. 

“We received good traction. In 2019, we had a series of successful pilots that included a full day of workshops during spring break. In one of our community partner sites, we had a lot of students participate so the school district paid for their transportation. People wanted us to come back and suggested other groups to work with. When we received  recognition from the community, I realized this could be a real thing. The non-profit became official when I filed for a 501(c)(3) status to operate in Missouri,” she explained. She went on to build their committee of board members, create programming and curriculum models for the actual program, raise funds, and learn the legal side. 

She thought it was vital to start this programming with middle school girls to make it a pipeline program by continuing with the girls to the high school age with the knowledge that the services will look different. “This will require a lot of curriculum and effort to make sure the program can retain those girls year after year. It is important to understand when the girls start to lose interest around seventh grade. They start becoming intimidated with math and questing their abilities,” Chapple said. 

“I think the adolescence phase is when they choose who they are going to be. Our program can get them at that age to understand they are capable of understanding they are STEM capable, and they fit. We don't have to understand it on the first go round but we don't quit or get intimidated, we build the mental resilience to face challenges. We have to change that narrative around what's for black girls and what's not,” she said.

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