Girls in Hampton middle schools learn leadership and STEM through this program

Girls in Hampton City Schools are focusing on STEM topics like magnetism in the Brave Heart after-school club. (WYDaily/Courtesy Kellie Goral)

Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum would include Heather Kline in their 2018 data to be among both the 24 percent of women who held a job in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) related fields and the 5 percent of women who were a pilot that year.

A licensed private pilot and research engineer at the National Institute of Aerospace by 2017, Kline wouldn’t have had many female mentors as she was coming up in the field which is why she and other women in STEM dedicate their time to middle school-age girls in the Brave Heart program at Hampton City Schools.

“What we know about the STEM field is that people of color and girls are grossly underrepresented and so what we would like to do is provide opportunities for our girls to see leaders that are closer in age to them, resemble them, and say if this person can do what she did, I can do it, too,” said Betsy McAllister, a STEM teacher specialist for Hampton City Schools and educator in residence at the National Institute of Aerospace.

Elizabeth Urig, a graduate research assistant with the institute, and Cecilia Mulvaney, who recently graduated with her master’s degree from UVA, are also mentors for the program.

The club’s focus this month is on magnetism, a field of research Urig is working on with NASA Langley Research Center. The mentors are working with the students to understand magnetic fields and make a compass which McAllister said “relates back to flying, determining magnetic North and being able to find your direction.”

Brave Heart is a national nonprofit with a mission to empower young girls but according to the website, “each Brave Heart group takes on their own personality, there is no one size fits all.”

Kelli Cedo is the K-12 English language arts curriculum leader for Hampton City Schools. She said the Hampton chapter of Brave Heart is three-fold: leadership, literacy, and STEM.

Cedo was the first to bring the organization to Hampton schools in 2015 when she said she was the principal at Forrest Elementary and noticed the need for a leadership group for fifth grade girls.

“It’s a leadership group with a mentorship component,” she said. “During [their meeting time] they have a book that they’re reading as a book club, they work on introducing themselves with confidence, small talk which is important…as a life skill and they also create their own mission around the work they’re going to do.”

The girls also go on field trips and their “mission” could include volunteer work as a group in the community.

The program has since expanded to include 94 girls in a weekly after-school club at five Hampton middle schools: Andrews pre-K through 8, Syms Middle School, Tarrant Middle School, Phenix pre-K through 8, and Jones Magnet Middle School.

Cedo said providing the students women in STEM careers will help open their eyes to career opportunities they may not have known are available to them but also help them realize how broad the field is as it’s “about a process where you create something, test it out, and try to make it better.”

“Currently and in the future, pretty much everything in our lives is going to revolve around STEM and we need to have our students well-versed in science, engineering literacy, and technology,” McAllister said. “The skills that are needed for them to be life-long learners, for them to be successful in college, career, and in life are going to involve being well-versed on STEM topics and STEM processes.”

The lessons in leadership and exposure to career paths, McAllister said, can’t come early enough for the girls to be able to make informed decisions especially as it relates to which Academies of Hampton in high school they’d most like to attend.

“We really look at providing the real-life, hands-on experiences through Brave Heart that can help them stay on that path knowing ‘I do have a future in front of me,’” Cedo said. “Creating that sense of hope for them that there are these amazing careers out there and ‘I can have the confidence to go out there and go for it.’”

For more information about Brave Heart, click here.

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