STEM Programs
Innovative strategies to attract youth to STEM
By Gale Horton Gay
Feb 18, 2014, 16:46

Rhonda Thomas and Shawna Stepp-Jones have launched separate initiatives designed to give students and their parents an insider’s view of the many facets of engineering and the steps needed to make an engineering career a reality.

Rhonda Thomas, a general engineer with the Federal Aviation Administration, is also the founder of Leap Forward, an organization that ensures that elementary, middle and high school students have an understanding of the opportunities that exist in engineering.

Thomas recalled that when she was a senior in high school a counselor stopped her in the hall and asked about her plans after graduation. She had her sights set on majoring in English in college and pursuing a career in journalism or teaching. That counselor told her that teachers don’t make much money but with her aptitude in math and science she should consider a career in the more lucrative field of engineering.

“I didn’t even know what engineering was,” said Thomas.

That conversation resulted in a course correction, and with the help of that counselor, Thomas applied for and was accepted into a Navy coop program and she began her pursuit of an engineering career.

“Passing him in that hall changed my life totally around,” said Thomas, who received an engineering degree from Tennessee State University.

Starting Leap Forward is Thomas’ way of honoring what that counselor did for her. In fact, she named the organization and its scholarship program—the Wallace Leaper Memorial Scholarships—in his honor.

“I don’t want kids who look like me to learn about engineering in their senior year in high school,” she said.

Thomas explained that her organization doesn’t waste time creating programs that already exist but relies heavily on finding good programs and putting those programs to work for them.

“There are so many STEM programs in existence now,” said Thomas. “The logistics have already been worked out.

In addition to visiting students at their schools to talk about engineering careers, Thomas and her partners also engage young people in competitions that involve science, technology, engineering and math and take students on field trips. In February 2014, outings are planned to the Women in Engineering’s Dream Conference at the University of Maryland College Park and the National Building Museum’s Engineering Day in Washington, D.C.

Thomas said she relies on local engineers to assist as volunteers and matches them with various needs of the group. She said she’s flexible and recognizes that not everyone will be available for all programs and events.

Young people have an array of obligations and distractions that present challenges when trying to get them involved in programs such as Leap Forward, according to Thomas. One of her strategies in dealing with this is to get parents involved.

“If mom and dad say, ‘This is important. I want you to learn about STEM,’ and when you have something they actually bring them out, it helps and it goes a long way,” said Thomas.

Since its official launch in 2001, Leap Forward, based in Prince Frederick, Md., has conducted college tours, awarded more than 100 scholarships and brought the Maryland Mathematics Engineering and Science Achievement program to Calvert County, Md. It also has exposed youth to engineering camps and scholarships sponsored by organizations such as the National Society of Black Engineers, the Society of Women Engineers and the BEYA Awards Conference.

Soliciting input from the youth is another of Thomas’ strategies. She recently asked a group of students to pick a name for a junior chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers. They chose CASH, which didn’t immediately make a positive impression on Thomas. The name stands for Creatively and Striving Hard, which Thomas decided was appropriate after she gave it some thought.

“But then I thought about you need money for scholarships, and engineers make a lot of money,” she remarked.

Shawna Stepp-Jones, a patent examiner with the U.S. Patent Office, holds an electrical engineering undergraduate degree from Morgan State and a master’s degree in technical management from Johns Hopkins University. In her job, Stepp-Jones uses her technical expertise to examine patent applications pertaining to display systems. From applications for plasma and LCD flat screens, to applications for portable e-book readers, to applications for Apple’s cool touch input user interfaces, she researches these inventions and determines the patentability of the invention, according to her website.

“The coolest thing about my job is seeing all of the latest and greatest groundbreaking technology before it actually hits the market,” states Stepp-Jones.

She is also founder and president of Divaneering, an organization whose focus is on getting elementary, middle and high school girls to have a better understanding of the opportunities that exist in engineering. The group’s slogan is “Where girls are engineered into divas.”

Stepp-Jones, who was crowned Miss Maryland Plus America for 2013, said she’s found a way to combine two of her passions for the greater good.

“Holding the titles of beauty queen and engineer breaks down the stereotype of what most engineers look like,” said Stepp-Jones. “Often times when I speak to young ladies, they tend to think we are introverts and quirky and geeky and nerdy so I make sure when I come before them I have fashionable attire. I am trendy. I appeal to their visual sensory so they, too, know that in fact we as female engineers are dynamic. We are fashionable. We are diva-licious. We are diva-rific.”

Divaneering focuses on fashion, health and beauty design challenges to engage the girls. Challenging girls to think critically in their creative and design pursuits and building their confidence are also among the group’s missions.

Some of the projects Stepp-Jones has come up with for the girls include having them make lipstick out of crayons to expose them to chemistry and creating LED earrings that require them to construct a mini electrical circuit before fashioning the earrings with studs and fabric.

“My vision is to triumphantly break through the barriers of this male-dominated tech profession by providing these young ladies with mental, emotional and intellectual artillery for success,” she said.

Stepp-Jones spells out five keys to success that applies to her organization and which others can be guided by as well:

• Instill creativity and innovation in one’s approach
• Engage and capture the audience’s attention immediately
• Be relatable. “Working with children they love to be understood.”
• Foster relationships
• Do what you love

Asked how she balances her professional life with the rigors of running a nonprofit group on the side, Stepp-Jones said building teams is the key. She added that when her female engineering friends who work in various fields—electrical, software, industrial engineering—asked what they could do to help, she put them to work on a team.

“What I found helpful for me was to create teams. Give them responsibility and not micro-manage,” she said. “Have them collaborate on my vision.”

Those teams, she said, made all the difference.

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