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July 24, 2018 | Tom Ballard

Yo-STEM mentors “lead by example” to spur interest in those areas

By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

“We lead by example,” Candice Halbert says in describing herself and her colleagues that participate in Yo-STEM programming. The acronym stands for “Youth Outreach in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.”

“It’s a non-profit geared to providing hands-on STEM programming for underserved communities,” the organization’s President and Founder told us in a recent interview. Yo-STEM grew out of an earlier initiative called “Girls in STEM” (gSTEM). It currently serves middle school girls and boys from diverse backgrounds, the all-important age group where lasting career impressions can be most imprinted.

For now, all participants come from Vine Middle School, but Halbert hopes to expand to other schools when additional funding is secured. The organization is clearly something for which she has great passion.

“We started gSTEM in August of 2016 with eight young ladies,” Halbert said. Six were in the eighth grade, and two were in the sixth grade. They were mentored by the Scientific Associate at Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s (ORNL) Spallation Neutron Source and three other women who were also STEM professionals at ORNL.

The students and their mentors gathered twice a month for one-hour sessions. They also took tours of different facilities at ORNL where the students saw how a technical background can prepare them for well-compensated careers.

“After the first year, the young ladies said they wanted more involvement,” Halbert explained. That led to weekly gatherings during the 2017-18 academic year for the 12 students and eight mentors.

“Two of the first-year sixth graders returned for the second year,” she said with a great deal of pride. Yo-STEM also added a new co-ed program called “Build-a-Drone” (BaD) to feed middle schoolers’ curiosity about the growing world of unmanned vehicle technology.

“We wanted to show students how to build, program and pilot UGVs (unmanned ground vehicles) and UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles),” Halbert explained. “At the end of the year, they designed their own obstacle course. The winner of the competition went through the course in two minutes.”

After all, it’s about capturing their attention and inspiring them to consider STEM careers.

As the initiative gears-up for its third year when classes begin this month, it is seeking additional sponsorship support with a goal of raising $45,000 for the 2018-19 school year. Since gSTEM was launched in 2016, Halbert has received funding from UT-Battelle LLC, managing contractor for ORNL, and the ORNL Federal Credit Union has signed-on as a sponsor this year.

STEM is an area and need Halbert knows well, having grown-up in Chicago where she aspired for greater opportunities. In her case, she says, “I thought I wanted to be a doctor.” In high school, she took at pre-calculus class where the teacher told her, “You should be an engineer. You think like an engineer.”

Later, at Illinois State University, Halbert struggled with biology but excelled at chemistry. She decided to shift majors, earning a B.S. in Chemistry and later an M.S. in the same discipline at Georgia Institute of Technology.

As Yo-STEM’s Founder, Halbert is realistic that all of the participants will not ultimately decide to major in a STEM field, but she knows the effort is worth it.

“We want the students to experience these things and see if they like them,” Halbert says. “They need to make a conscious decision. For us (the mentors), it’s all about building these relationships and nurturing these young people.”

In addition to helping the underserved youth experience something that might change their lives forever, Yo-STEM is also having its own educational impact on Halbert and the team. “It’s a learning curve for us, but it’s worth it,” she says of the work the mentors undertake with the young men and women. After all, the former were trained for STEM professions, not as teachers.

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