Feature Story

Female-led STEM facilities target young children

by Mary Ann Azevedo

female-led STEM

This pair of female leaders are going the extra mile to make sure children are being exposed to STEM learning and careers at a young age.

When former biotech startup founder Bonnie Baskin heard that a historic gristmill and cotton gin in Johnson City, Texas, was for sale, she saw opportunity.

The career scientist and entrepreneur had moved to the region in 2010 and had previously founded and served as CEO for two successful biotechnology companies.

Over the years, she and her scientist husband Bob Elde always felt compelled to create diverse environments both within her companies and at the University of Minnesota where Elde was Dean of Biological Sciences. It was important to both husband and wife that women and people of different ethnic origins be in roles of power and responsibility.

"I know he struggled with getting diversity in the classrooms and with researchers and professors just as I struggled with it within my companies. It was just something we lived with," she recalls. "It was really hard, always hard."

When the pair retired and moved to Texas, they didn't expect to one day open The Science Mill, a non-profit science center and museum. But Baskin saw tremendous potential in the 1880s derelict facility in Johnson City.

"We saw an opportunity to be able to be in a rural setting where the kids didn't understand the opportunities that were there for them in a STEM-related job. The location gave us access to underserved communities in Austin and San Antonio," she said. "And so it was a very interesting concept for us to be building a world-class high-tech science museum in a town of 1600."

After buying the old mill in late 2012, Baskin – and her team – spent the next two and a half years renovating the site. They worked to include interactive, engaging exhibits from around the world and to design a place where kids could learn about STEM subjects and career opportunities through hands-on involvement.

"We basically repurposed an old mill and turned into a really cool place," Baskin said.

The Science Mill features more than 50 exhibits that combine creativity and hands-on learning through art, kinetic technology, augmented reality and computer gaming. While each exhibit has a brief description in English and Spanish, they don't come with how-to guides or instructions – on purpose so that each visitor can create their own unique Science Mill experience, notes Baskin. However, the museum employs "highly trained" workers who are available to answer questions when needed. The museum is geared more toward middle school-aged children.

"We wanted kids to be comfortable, and not intimidated. It's all interactive and experiential. There's no right or wrong. They can own this place pretty quickly," she said. "We use technology as a platform and a format for engagement to highlight careers throughout STEM and provide relevancy for things kids are learning in school. Our goal is to get kids excited about doing things, and at the same time understand there are opportunities to have a lifetime of doing these things if they choose to continue their education and become a part of the STEM career workforce."

See also: Solutions to the STEM teacher shortage

Since the museum opened on Feb. 14, 2015, it has had nearly 120,000 visitors, including thousands of children who have visited on field trip scholarships. Making science accessible to lower income students and those living in rural areas has always been a priority for Baskin. This summer (in the summer of 2018), more than 70 percent of the Science Mill's summer campers will attend on full scholarship with the help of partnerships with a number of community organizations and businesses.

Expanding access to STEM

Maria Kehoe, principal of Rios STEM Magnet in El Cajon, Calif, is another female leader who aims to give children who might not otherwise have it access to a STEM education.

The journey to become the first computer science STEM Magnet school began in the spring of 2015 when the school began its partnership with Code to the Future, which offered a computer science curriculum that was in early stage of development. 

During that pilot year, Kehoe worked with teachers and CTTf to teach computer science to elementary school age students.

"In the first year, I met with the CEO and his curriculum developer to integrate computer science standards in to the daily schedule of each classroom teacher," she said. "The expectation was that every teacher in every grade would present lessons based on computer science concepts and skills for 30 minutes a day. Although computer science was taught in middle and high schools, there were no other elementary schools dedicating daily instruction and training for every teacher."

See also: Cisco celebrates STEM for everyone this Girls in ICT Day

One unexpected thing that occurred during that first year was that the teachers began to make connections to other content areas and incorporating computer science coding projects into science, social studies, and English language arts, Kehoe said.

The school was recently identified as a Title I school based on its free/reduced lunch rate. Over the past two years, it has increased its enrollment by from 265 students to 360."

Rios STEM Magnet's computer science program includes block coding, Lego robotics and Minecraft "modding," which is a text-base coding platform that allows students to build 3-D bricks using text based programming.

"We are teaching our students to explore their own strengths, interest and values and make connections to careers and jobs that could be aligned to those strengths, interest, and values," Kehoe said. "I've realized that by allowing my teachers to be innovative, become risk-takers, and make mistakes, the students are starting to know a lot more about the technology than we do. By embracing that and giving children a place to explore their own creativity has really made our school a fun place for us all."