Club girls are poised to be the next generation of inventors and innovators with the help of the DIY STEM program and Club virtual learning platforms.
Imagine designing, constructing and launching a working rocket from ordinary drinking straws. Creating a functional lightbulb with a mason jar, pie pan and a toilet paper tube. Concocting soda pop with baking soda, citric acid and wooden coffee stirrers.
At Boys & Girls Clubs, Club kids spur fascination in aeronautics, the principles of electricity and chemical reactions through working with everyday items. Thanks to the DIY STEM program and Club virtual learning platforms, that fascination is growing among female Club members, positioning them to become the next wave of outstanding inventors, creators, and scientists.
“The problems ahead of us as a society are incredibly complex and diverse and we need that diversity of thinking in our workforce,” says Dr. Kamini Varma, Vice President, Research & Development Genetic Testing Solutions, Genetic Sciences at Thermo Fisher. Currently, women make up 48.5% of the international workforce but less than 30% of STEM workers.1 To address this disparity, Thermo Fisher, the world leader in serving science and a national partner of Boys & Girls Clubs of America, is focused on providing equitable access to STEM education and inspiring the next generation of innovators. The company recently renewed their partnership to support the usage of DIY STEM Kits at Clubs across the nation and DIY STEM on Boys & Girls Clubs’ virtual learning platform."
Dr. Varma says, “It is vitally important to support and encourage STEM education for girls and foster relationships that in turn will build a future workforce that more fully represents our society and better positions us to solve the world's most complex problems.” Dr. Varma knows a thing or two about solving complex problems: she leads the team responsible for developing molecular diagnostic products that enable Thermo Fisher’s customers around the world to detect a variety of diseases, including COVID-19. In fact, Dr. Varma’s team designed and validated one of the first COVID-19 tests to receive Emergency Use Authorization by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
At Boys & Girls Clubs of America, the next generation of women problem-solvers in STEM is taking shape now.
As Dr. Varma explains, “One of the consistent challenges faced by girls and women in STEM is rooted in gender stereotypes which can begin very early in age. In school, it often starts with the notion that boys are better in math.”
Before Club kid Alexandra B. developed an excitement for STEM discovery, she believed that math and science simply weren’t for girls. Though she did well in those subjects, she felt that exploring other interests would help her “fit in better” with her peers.
Programming at Alexandra’s Waltham Boys & Girls Club, however, changed her perception of STEM. “I realized there is science and math behind almost everything we do – like how algorithms work for TikTok,” the seventh-grader says. “More importantly, I realized that girls can do whatever they want to do. If I want to be interested in something, I can be.”
The DIY STEM program at Boys & Girls Clubs offers hands-on, activity-based learning opportunities for youth to connect STEM theories and applications to real-world situations. “The value of experiential learning opportunities in STEM curricula is priceless as it promotes a growth mindset,” Dr. Varma says. Through this sort of active learning as well as Club virtual learning platforms, another avenue to gain exposure to hands-on STEM education, students are able to strengthen their retention of STEM concepts.
“Students using these real-world applications learn everything from science and reading,” Dr. Varma says. “To creativity, to 21st century skills like productivity, adaptability and communication—enabling them to aspire to a STEM-based career.”
Back in the STEM lab, Alexandra learned the science behind a visual gag – literally. Their first STEM learning activity was “making pumpkins ‘puke’ by using vinegar and baking soda!
Alexandra says, “I didn’t realize it was a STEM activity until my mentor Ms. Anna began to explain how we’d made so much foam. I wanted to do it again immediately, so I asked Ms. Anna if I could help her run the activity again with the younger members. It was just as fun the second time helping first- and second-graders understand the science behind the experiment, too.”
She went on to participate in a variety of activities including interacting with a virus outbreak simulator and studying bacteria in their environment. “We swabbed things around the room and saw how much bacteria grew in our petri dishes afterward,” Alexandra says. “I walk around with hand sanitizer in my pocket now.”
“A hands-on approach to STEM education helps kids explore their creativity and bring their own unique signature to projects,” adds Dr. Varma. “This is a virtuous cycle as it can help students discover the wide presence and applicability of STEM while helping to build their confidence.”
It was Dr. Varma’s unique STEM learning experiences as a child that helped shape her resolve in pursuing science and technology without hesitation. “I attended all girls’ schools in India until my undergrad year,” she says. There were no gender-based stereotypes. I was surrounded by female role models who built my confidence.”
Sixth-grade Club kid Nicolly S. also saw STEM in a new light at the Waltham Club with the help of her role model Ms. Sophia. Nicolly says, “Ms. Sophia helps me with understanding problems and motivates me to work harder. STEM is different here at the Club: the learning environment is fun and allows me to have an open mind and not worry about getting something ‘right’ or ‘wrong.’ I just focus on learning or making something new.”
Dr. Varma had an aunt who worked at a nonprofit whose scientific research supported the development of improved agricultural outcomes, particularly for populations experiencing food insecurity.
“I was enamored with seeing her go to work each day as well as seeing how science and genetics were being used to solve a real-world problem,” says Dr. Varma. “My aunt’s example transformed science from a theoretical school subject to a practical life utility.” Following in her aunt’s footsteps, Dr. Varma majored in genetics and chemistry before receiving a PhD in biochemistry and spending two decades in the biotech field.
Because of her Club’s support and inspiration, Nicolly is looking forward to working in STEM as well. “Ms. Sophia is in nursing school right now while she works at our Club. When she finishes school, helping people is really important to her,” Nicolly says. “That’s something I want to do, too. I would like to be a nurse who works with kids. I help take care of my little brother when he is sick. I also help younger kids at my Club with their homework. Helping others has always been something I’ve loved to do. It feels like my calling.”
“Women of color were and still are very under-represented in senior positions in the workforce. Without adequate representation of women in STEM at different levels, it can feel very isolating for women to be on this journey and may deter them from performing at their best”, Dr. Varma says. “The most important thing to remember is that you have the power to change this. Many of my breakthroughs have come from deliberately seeking out both male and female mentors along the way to nurture my sense of belonging and help me grow.”
Aspiring female STEM professionals at Boys & Girls Clubs are motivated by their mentors and female STEM heroes to nurture their power to gain and apply their skills with confidence.
One particular historical figure comes to mind for Club kids Alexandra and Nicolly – Katherine Johnson, award-winning American mathematician upon whom the movie “Hidden Figures” was based.
“Katherine Johnson was one of the mathematicians who helped NASA send the first astronauts into space,” says Alexandra. “She combated stereotypes, racism and sexism. She made me understand that I can do whatever I want no matter what other people say.”
Adds Nicolly, “She was not only a Black woman in a male-dominated field. She was working in this field during a time when racial segregation and discrimination were the norm. She showed everyone that she meant it when she said she was the smartest in the room. She is an example for me to show everyone exactly what I can do.”
Dr. Varma, who is an active member of Thermo Fisher’s Women’s Empowerment Business Resource Group and mentors women in STEM careers, can attest to the importance of female scientific figures in her life as well. “Women leaders like NASA Scientist Katherine Johnson, former PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi and Nobel Prize-winning Geneticist Barbara McClintock have paved the way for female leaders and scientists like me to dream and be successful. I am encouraged and I encourage others to always be curious, be passionate, and never let any limitation get in the way.”
Alexandra and Nicolly are also ready to inspire their female friends and peers to give STEM a chance. Alexandra says, “Sometimes STEM is hard and sometimes it can feel difficult to understand right away but I know from experience that you will eventually get it and learn a lot of new and cool things about the world around you. It’s definitely worth putting in the effort to find out what specific thing in the world of STEM interests you.”
The demand for science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) talent continues to grow at a remarkable pace, while access to high-quality STEM education lags behind. Thermo Fisher Scientific and Boys & Girls Clubs of America are changing the game by nurturing a 21st-century STEM workforce that accurately reflects our society and leverages its diversity to solve the world’s most complex problems.
Boys & Girls Clubs of America supports today’s young people in thriving academically while building essential skills for the workforce. We’re committed to providing hands-on STEM experiences that ignite interest in STEM careers.