Laguna Beach-based nonprofit tries to help young girls plant roots in STEM fields

Project Scientist participants raise their hands during an "expedition" to see Black Hawk and Chinook helicopters last summer in St. Paul, Minn. The organization works with girls ages 4 to 12 who are interested in science, technology, engineering and math.
(Courtesy of Project Scientist)

It was an experiment when the earliest members of Project Scientist started gathering in the North Carolina backyard of founder Sandy Marshall in 2011.

Marshall, who has spent the past 20 years in nonprofit management, was following up an initiative with NASCAR to help promote science, technology, engineering and math through motorsports.

Marshall, whose daughter was 4 at the time, said: “There is an absence of women and girls in STEM, and girls will opt out of those fields for a variety of reasons at different ages. I didn’t want that to happen to my daughter.”

“I reflected on myself,” Marshall said. “I was a pre-med major, but when I ran into an obstacle with organic chemistry, I lost my confidence. I took it twice and found it really challenging. ... I ... thought, ‘If I cannot pass this class then I certainly cannot be a doctor.’ I didn’t want that to happen to her.”

When Project Scientist, which serves girls ages 4 to 12, officially started in 2013, it had 90 participants. Last summer, the number of girls participating climbed to 2,300 across the country, Marshall said. The goal is to serve 20,000 girls overall by 2022.

The nonprofit has been based in Laguna Beach since Marshall and her family relocated from North Carolina in 2015.

“We don’t want to keep [girls] out of [science, technology, engineering and math]," says Project Scientist founder Sandy Marshall of Laguna Beach. "It’s a huge opportunity for all kids to have a great career in engineering, computer science and robotics, so why not encourage our girls?”
(Courtesy of Project Scientist)

“For society in general, we have huge global challenges that could be solved through innovations in STEM, and if we don’t have a diverse group of people leading these ... discussions and deciding where resources should be put to solve these problems, we’ll never solve them,” Marshall said. “We don’t want to keep [girls] out of [STEM]. It’s a huge opportunity for all kids to have a great career in engineering, computer science and robotics, so why not encourage our girls?”

“When I read the research as to why many women drop out of STEM majors, it resonated with me,” she added. “Women change majors due to a loss of confidence — perfectionism and fixed mind-set — and due to a lack of role models.”

The Project Scientist model now is the same as it was in the beginning — participants typically are involved in six-week summer academies in which each week has a theme based on a different industry or field, with visits to companies aligned with the themes. Each week involves credentialed teachers and female professionals across different careers.

“We base those themes on feedback from the girls on subjects they’d like to study, hot topics in society, so each summer, those themes change,” Marshall said.

“Typically, there’s always a robotics week, a coding-themed week, a medical- or dissection-themed week and aerospace — there’s some interesting ones,” she said. “We heard from the girls that climate change is important to them. We also heard a lot about [artificial intelligence], so robotics had a focus on AI.”

Project Scientist girls join pilots, engineers and mechanics from the Minnesota Air National Guard and Collins Aerospace for a photo during a summer exhibition last year in St. Paul, Minn.
(Courtesy of Project Scientist)

There also are periodic “expeditions,” one of which took local girls to the Orange County Crime Lab in Santa Ana.

San Clemente parent and Project Scientist board member Mary Izadi helped organize the event and said she realized halfway through the process that she should have her daughter attend.

Izadi, the constitutional policing advisor for the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, said last summer was their first with the program and that her daughter had a “blast.”

“I think that although more and more young girls these days are pursuing their passions in STEM careers, historically there has been an underrepresentation of women in science,” Izadi said. “So, I would appreciate the opportunity to show them different role models that have currently broken various barriers to be in these scientific fields that they have a passion for and show these young girls firsthand that they can do it too.”

Project Scientist became a nonprofit in 2013 and has partnerships with several universities, including Queens University of Charlotte, the California Institute of Technology, USC and Loyola Marymount University. It now covers three states — North Carolina, California and Minnesota — but the organization expects to launch a program in Atlanta.

It also has partnered with UC Irvine the past three summers and held an expedition last week at the university’s Henry Samueli School of Engineering.

“The event was a great opportunity for the girls to dip their toes into STEM and get familiar with all possible career options available to them,” said A. Lili Castillo, outreach co-chairwoman for UCI’s chapter of the Society of Women Engineers.

“With regard to our SWE chapter, it was an amazing way for us to become the role models that some of us wish we had growing up,” said Castillo, a second-year mechanical engineering student.

Project Scientist participants Thasya Muddana, Cheryll Prabakaran and Aleena Thomas, from left, try to build the tallest gummy tower during a visit to UC Irvine's engineering school Feb. 17.
(Courtesy of Project Scientist)

The cost to participate in a summer “camp” varies by location. The one in Irvine is four weeks and costs $795 a week. The one in Charlotte, N.C., is six weeks, at $495 a week.

The nonprofit provides financial aid through grants to girls from low-income families.

Project Scientist is about to open a new office in Laguna. The goal is to provide some evening and weekend classes in addition to two weeks of summer camp in an effort to serve the local community. Marshall said she hopes to cut the ribbon for the new office on Earth Day, April 22.

“For us, it’s taking that extra step and creating that environment where they can just be themselves and build up their confidence so when they do approach challenging situations where they are underrepresented, they can feel empowered to have their voices heard and be a part of the conversation,” Marshall said.

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