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By Wendy Cloherty
San Diego is home to numerous industries based in the STEM fields—science, technology, engineering, and math. However, there is an acute underrepresentation of minorities in today’s growing STEM professions.
Vickie Turner, a member of the San Diego Chapter of The Links, Inc., sought to address this problem locally. The Links, Inc., is an international nonprofit made up of professional women of color committed to community service and especially to youth.
Six years ago, Turner brought to The Links the idea of creating a STEM program for students of minority ethnicities. The goal was to expose the students at an early age to STEM professionals who are also people of color. Soon after, Links to STEM was born.
Links to STEM is a year-round program for fourth through eighth graders who want to deepen their knowledge of STEM subjects, develop their oral presentation and teamwork skills, and have fun while they’re at it. The program of 30 students, most from low- to moderate-income households, runs from June to May with STEM enrichment camps during the summer with support from SDG&E’s Inspiring Future Leaders giving initiative.
Students have opportunities to meet and learn from young professionals working in STEM-related fields. They participate in laboratory science, computer programming, special projects, and field trips. They have visited SDSU’s School of Engineering and its Visualization Lab, where the students saw how engineers can track wildfires up to 15 seconds in real time; the Birch Aquarium at Scripps, where the students participated in dissecting squids; the Maker Faire in Balboa Park; and the San Diego Festival of Science & Engineering Expo Day at PETCO Park.
“Most of these students would not otherwise have the opportunity,” said Turner. “It gives them the chance to see other children like themselves, and coaches and mentors who look like them. They can have something to aspire to and they can say, ‘I, too, can do it.’”
“Making sure that we expose minority students to STEM is very much one of my passions … to make sure that in the future, we continue to have a very diverse field within STEM careers and professions,” said Dr. Akilah Weber, the program’s primary science teacher and STEM coordinator, and physician at Rady Children’s Hospital.
Links to STEM also has a competitive robotics team made up of seventh and eighth graders. The team—named ‘The Gigabears’ by the students—is part of the First Lego League, an international robotics competition. In 2016 it won its first trophy for first place in robotic design against more than 20 other teams.
To score points in the competition, teams focus on robot design and building, programming, solving a real-world problem, and demonstrating core values. Students learn project management, research techniques, programming skills, and respect for their team members.
“One of the most amazing aspects of the whole thing is to see the kids grow over time. To see a kid [become] so much more confident and more open to sharing their ideas is pretty rewarding,” said Reginald Paulding, robotics coach who also works for the U.S. Navy.
Stephanie Alexander’s 11-year-old twin boys, Tyler and Ayden, are enrolled in Links to STEM. She especially appreciates the program’s focus on bringing in teachers of color who are experts in their fields to help her children see the possibilities for their future.
“I want them to have the skills and abilities to do pretty much whatever they want to do, but I hope they also have confidence that they can accomplish and do anything, and make a difference in society,” said Alexander.
The program has led to many positive outcomes and future opportunities for its students.
Lavar Watkins was part of the very first cohort of fourth graders to join Links to STEM. He discovered his passion for computer engineering during one of the program’s trips to Hewlett Packard (HP).
“Not only did I see engineers, but I saw engineers in my color,” he said. “HP wants diversity in the field of engineering, which means I have an even better opportunity than I thought.”
Watkins is graduating high school this year and recently submitted his college applications. He hopes to one day work with Ivideon to create graphics cards and more realistic designs. He sees how this work can help better society. In areas like architecture for instance, graphic cards can lead to the creation of more efficient housing to address issues of homelessness and poverty.
“Links to STEM exposes kids properly and effectively so they understand what they’re getting themselves into and know if they really want to do this in the future,” said Watkins. “I know what I’m getting myself into, I actually enjoy it, and I want to do it for the rest of my life. And I can change the world,” he said.
Turner hopes to broaden Links to STEM, institutionalize its meaning, and reach even more students. The program is currently limited by its number of volunteers and resources.
“Most importantly, I want to create a pipeline of children who want to think outside the box and who are prepared for tomorrow’s careers,” said Turner. “Because that’s what this is all about. The world is changing rapidly and we have to be a part of it.”
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If you know an interested student or would like to partner with Links to STEM, please visit sandiegolinks.org.