Maya Ajmera is the president and CEO of the Society for Science, a nonprofit dedicated to expanding scientific literacy, effective STEM education, and scientific research.
“We have a lot of problems to solve in our world from the pandemic to global climate change," Ajmera said. "And I would say that right now we're at a real inflection point in our country; if we do not invest in the next generation of young people to become scientists or engineers, this country is not going to stay ahead of the game.”
In order to fulfill that mission, the nonprofit started the Advocate Program. The program provides mentors to encourage underserved students to enter their projects in science research competitions.
Middle school science teacher Erin Mayer has been a part of the Advocate Program for two years. She says she applied because nearly half of her students are on free and reduced lunch. She saw the program as a great opportunity to get more underrepresented students in STEM.
“Sixth grade is the first time they oftentimes have a stand alone science class," Mayer said. "And I have a lot of kids that come in, particularly from underrepresented groups, who feel like they can't do science, or they're not good at science and which is kind of heartbreaking. And so, really allowing these projects to grow kind of empowers them and shows them that everybody can be good at science.”
One of the students she mentored last year is seventh-grader Andres Herrera Murillo. His months-long science project involved something he loves.
“I made paper airplanes, I studied how they flew with motors or no motor, and I made one of my own my own design,” Herrera Murillo said.
Mayer says the project came with its challenges, but she was able to mentor Herrera Murillo, even through the pandemic when school went virtual.
“He had never had to analyze data before," Mayer said. "Like what he did for this project. So, he it was hard, but he persevered and was always there in the Google Meets with questions in hand to ask me. And so just mentored him the best I could. And he did a fabulous job in the end.”
When asked if he’s seen people who look like him in science-based careers, he shakes his head ‘no’.
“My family's from Mexico," Herrera Murillo sad. "They didn't really finish school or finish middle school.”
Leaders in STEM careers, like Roselin Rosario-Melendez, say representation is important for younger kids of color to see they can achieve their dreams. Rosario-Melendez is a polymer chemist who works in the cosmetic industry. She’s also an ambassador for a separate but very similar initiative called “If Then She Can” that encourages young girls and minorities to enter STEM fields.
"Growing up, ya know my parents are not in STEM," Rosario-Melendez said. " I really didn't know anyone that was a scientist.”
Rosario-Melendez says she doesn’t think she would be a scientist today if it weren’t for her mentors.
“Having those mentors, especially when I got to college and started to have those discussions and learn in what I could potentially be, it was incredibly helpful,” Rosario-Melendez said.
Herrera Murillo says his paper airplane project and support from Mayer have deepened his desire to enter a STEM career.
“I want to be an architect,” Herrera Murillo said,
“There's so many parallels, I think, between what he did with his design and iteration work with in collecting data and revising with his paper airplanes that can be directly applied to the field of architecture,” Mayer said.
If students like Herrera Murillo feel inspired to continue in science, STEM leaders say our world will be in good hands.
“In my personal experience, when I when I'd be more successful, more creative, being able to invent and innovate the most is when I work with teams that are diverse,” Rosario-Melendez said.