Nonprofit Spotlight: Black Girls Do STEM

Only two-and-a-half percent of science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM) bachelor’s degrees are awarded to Black women.

Cynthia Chapple wants to change that. Not only are STEM occupations among the most lucrative, but there is a need for capable and innovative scientists and engineers. After applying the problem-solving skills that helped her earn a master’s degree in chemistry and succeed as a research and development chemist, she developed a program to encourage Black young women to study STEM. Cynthia explains that “Black Girls Do STEM (BGDSTEM) takes a very equitable, centered, intentional approach to meet the kids who have the highest need for a science, technology, engineering, and mathematics career exploratory program.” BGDSTEM focuses on First Generation STEM Exposure, targeting girls whose parents or guardians don’t hold college degrees or work in a STEM field. More than 60 girls and families have been served by the program so far.

STEM Saturday Academy, designed for girls in grades 6 – 9, takes students beyond what they experience in a typical science or math classroom. In addition to field trips to STEM businesses, students engage in hands-on activities and learn from Black women who work in science and technology careers. The field trips and activities show the girls that STEM can be fun, and the mentors act as proof that Black women can be successful in STEM. The final component of the program includes sessions created by a Licensed Social Worker to encourage self-worth and confidence building in girls.

A Black girl with her hair pulled back speaks into a microphone.

Developing confidence can take many forms. Cynthia says, “We want to teach girls to think and struggle beautifully.” For example, one high-achieving straight-A student struggled with a flight simulator. “She just kept crashing, and she wanted to give up. She cried.” The two discussed how one failure doesn’t make someone a failure. “In this space [BGDSTEM], we can make impacts that we can’t always put a tangible measurement or metric on. We know the girls who come out of our program, who have built resilience and have perspective, can see that success isn’t just tied to things like straight A’s.”

After a student has participated in the Saturday STEM Academy for two years, they may take part in the Empowerment, Preparation, and Placement (EPP) Program that works with upper middle school to high school girls. EPP offers support services critical to student success and continues to cultivate zeal for STEM through tutoring, test prep, college visits, and more. Support in these areas is vital to first-generation college students. Plus, internships and experiential learning opportunities help students learn what types of work they like to do.

Last summer, BGDSTEM partnered with Washington University and St. Louis University to offer their first summer research program, allowing students to partner with the colleges on real research. This experiential learning can make a world of difference to a girl considering a STEM field. Cynthia describes the impact it had on a current high school senior who has been involved in BGDSTEM since the seventh grade. “She did a research project last year through our program and biomedical engineering at Wash U, and now she’s switching her major to premed biomedical engineering instead of just biochemistry. She wants to be a doctor and then become a surgeon and make advances in surgical technologies.” This example illustrates the benefits of giving girls opportunities. “Yes, you can be a doctor, but our program helps show students all the ways they can study medicine.”

BGDSTEM needs volunteers, partners, and sponsors. There are many ways to get involved. “People can volunteer as individuals or as a group. We need Black and brown women working in STEM to act as mentors and role models. We partner with communities and schools, and finally we need donors to make sure this program remains 100% free to the families and girls who need it.”

One great way to donate is through the St. Louis Community Foundation’s Give STL Day. Cynthia values the exposure their group and other smaller nonprofits in the region gain from participating in the event. “Give STL Day gives us additional opportunities and funding. We’ve had people and groups reach out to us because they learned about us through Give STL Day. Also, I think it’s important to have a day to celebrate the good work that’s happening in the St. Louis region, especially in some of the smaller lesser-known organizations.”

Like many of these smaller organizations, BDGSTEM has a big mission, and they need your help. Give STL Day is a great time to contribute to BDGSTEM, a program ensuring girls gain “a confidence that is real because we really invested them into the idea that they’re innovators and problem solvers. They have a brilliance in them and how they see the world, and that’s something they’re going to be able to offer to STEM spaces.”

One of the Saturday STEM Academy participants said it best, “BGDSTEM has really boosted my confidence and let me know I could really do anything. Being Black in the STEM field I know would be challenging, but BGDSTEM really let me know that I can’t be held back.”