Do the math: Add the Consulate General of Canada and the Atlanta Science Festival and then multiply the sum by two Google Science Fair winners, five Wellsping Living students and 12 local Atlanta high school students.
What’s the answer? The inaugural event STEM2STEM: Mentoring for Lifelong Success, which welcomed girls of all races and nationalities with an emphasis on attracting those that may have suffered sexual exploitation.
The Canadian consulate general hosted the initiative as part of the Atlanta Science Festival, a week-long celebration of local science and technology, held March 21-28, providing opportunities for people of all ages to explore the science and technology in the metro Atlanta area.
Consul General Louise Blais wanted to create a program that presented fields in STEM—Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math—as viable career paths for girls to pursue. “Often with science and technology, girls get dissuaded to pursue careers in that, and we thought that there’s something we can do as a consulate to make a difference,” she told Global Atlanta.
STEM2STEM encourages girls to pursue careers in STEM while also contributing to the strong trade partnership that exists between Canada and the United States valued at $759 billion.
Ms. Blais wanted to extend the reach of the Canadian consulate to include not just Canada and Canadian citizens living and working in Atlanta, but the local Atlanta community as well.
She credits Vanessa Podgurny, technology partnering and investment officer at the consulate, with the idea for STEM2STEM.
“Vanessa, my team member, came up with this idea because she’s involved in the community, and she believes in women in science and tech., she said. “And one of the things we hear all the time is about the fact that companies are having a hard time recruiting talent and to fuel wonderful jobs and to fuel this part of the economy.”
The STEM2STEM program also appealed to her both because as a woman she is sympathetic to the challenges facing young women today, and because of her desire to confront the problem of domestic sex trafficking in Atlanta, where sex trafficking is ranked #1 in the nation.
“I had heard when I moved here about, for example, the sex trade was a big problem in Atlanta,” Ms. Blais said. “I thought, we have to do everything that we can to give every single girl in this city the opportunity that she deserves to make the choices that she wants.”
Consequently, she invited students from Wellspring Living, a center dedicated to helping victims of domestic sex trafficking, to participate in the inaugural STEM2STEM event.
Among the attendees were students from both Canada and the United States. 2014 Google Science Fair winners Ann Makosinki and Hayley Todesco, both Canadian, attended through video conference. Also in attendance were 12 female high school students from Atlanta public schools, and five female students from Wellspring Living.
What tied the program together, according to Ms. Blais, was learning that the two Canadian girls had won the 2014 Google Science Fair. “We thought, ‘What a great way to link young Canadian women in Canada with American girls in the community,’” she said.
The two-part initiative consisted of a video conference session and mentoring session.
Through video conference from Canada, Miss Todesco and Miss Makosinki explained their projects to local Atlanta students.
Miss Todesco developed an environmentally-friendly method to detoxify water, while Miss Makosinki developed a flashlight powered by body heat. They also shared obstacles they faced along the way to completing their projects, as well as plans for higher education.
“As for what sparked my interest in science,” said Miss Todesco, “I would have to say that science has always fascinated me. People are naturally curious and if you want to go into a field of constant discovery, science is the way to go.”
The second part of the initiative consisted of a lunch-hour mentoring session for the students with local STEM-professionals, all fourteen of whom were women. Mentors and mentees sat together at tables in small groups of two to five. Mentors shared their backgrounds, while students spoke their interest in STEM subjects and asked questions.
The occupations of the STEM2STEM mentors represented the breadth of opportunities available to students pursuing careers in STEM, including a postdoctoral student, a neuroscientist, entrepreneurs, and professionals from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“We have women here from academia, from small companies, from big companies. We have interpreters. There is a really wide array, and I think for young students to be able to see all these prospects, all these options are out there, I think was important,” said Ms. Blais.
The students responded positively while the mentors shared their experiences.
For instance, Douglass High School student Jenay Cerge told Global Atlanta, “For me, it will expand my opportunities more to see what else is out there and what else I can do for myself.”
Mary Miles, president and CEO of the technology firm Clean Hands, Safe Hands, recalled that she first developed an interest in math after counting money from her father’s business. “Girls were not encouraged to do science fairs as much,” Ms. Miles said. “They weren’t encouraged in math at all.”
Nikita Burrows, molecular basis for disease fellow at Georgia State University, shared her experience as a doctoral student in her field. “It’s still a highly male dominated field. So hopefully it’s better. Hopefully you guys break the cycle.”
The STEM2STEM initiative is part of the larger overarching goal of promoting trade between Canada and the United States. Currently, the U.S. and Canada share the largest bilateral partnership in the world. Canada is also Georgia’s largest trade partner with over 60 Canadian companies in the state and 343,500 jobs dependent on trade with Canada.
Encouraging girls to pursue careers in STEM, an area vastly underrepresented by women, is one way that Ms. Blais intends to contribute to the Canada-U.S. bilateral partnership.
“Some of these girls might work in Canada, or they might work for a company that’s Canadian. There won’t be that surprise for them anymore. They now know there’s that connection,” she added.
Ms. Blais would like the consulate general to continue the initiative next year building on the foundation put in place by the inaugural event.
“This was the first time that we did this. We didn’t know how it was going to work out. I can say now that I’m incredibly inspired by the event and I will want to build on it, either through staying in touch with the girls that were here today and making sure that we track their progress and maybe continue to offer support or maybe doing another event, a similar event reaching out to other girls,” she said.