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Dr. Adrienne Starks’ STREAM Innovations: Keeping Ideas Flowing for Young Explorers

Dr. Adrienne Starks
Dr. Adrienne Starks.

There’s an easy way to measure of the success of the STREAM Innovations non-profit, says AAAS Member Adrienne Starks, the program’s founder. The kids just don’t want to leave.

“I had a mother come up to thank me for showing her daughter that science can be cool. Because before that day, her daughter didn’t like it. She never thought she could have fun doing it; it was a thing her brother did,” says Starks.

From computer coding, to bridge building, to learning how the human body works, the non-profit STREAM Innovations provides a range of programming that energizes third through eighth graders to become explorers and designers in ways they may not have had a chance to do in the classroom. It helps youngsters, many from underrepresented populations, develop their passions and become problem solvers and innovators.

STREAM Innovations showcases Starks’ talents as a scientist, entrepreneur and community activist. She says the inclusiveness of her own doctorate program in Biological Sciences at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) played a role in her creation of STREAM Innovations. Colleagues at grad school from different countries meant the program saw a broadness of cultures and experiences, and more approaches to finding answers.

“[UMBC] incorporated other disciplines and helped you to realize it is equally important to be creative and artistic. Being able to see the importance of an art with a science, being able to see language being championed right next to math [is important],” she says.

Therefore, this program at UMBC inspired Starks to expand the focus of STEM, (science, technology, engineering and math) to include different components of problem solving—namely, arts and reading. So, Starks used the common acronym STEM as a starting point but added an “A” for arts and an “R” for reading to create the name of her science program, “STREAM.” Starks makes it clear to her young participants that they can be a researcher and an artist, or an engineer and a poet. And sometimes, those unexpected combinations bring a fresh perspective to problem solving.

In addition to her time at UMBC, Starks completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the National Institutes of Health’s National Cancer Institute, studying health disparities between African-American and European-American patients. She sometimes found a twenty-year difference in life expectancies, tied to barriers in access to jobs, education, transportation and health care.

That knowledge of inequities played a part in her bold decision not to pursue an academic career, but instead to help guide the futures of underserved young people in her home state of Alabama. It was a daring decision.

“Do I go back into academia or do I do STREAM Innovations?” she asked herself.  “I knew I couldn’t do both.”

In the end, Dr. Starks says she chose STREAM Innovations because “I didn’t want to lose the light and the passion.”

The decision paid off. The success of STREAM Innovations is one reason Starks is honored as one of 125 AAAS IF/THEN® Ambassadors. Its mission is, “IF we support a woman in STEM, THEN she can change the world.” Starks says of when the ambassadors met in Dallas in 2019, they celebrated each other’s achievements.

“I became a fan girl of so many women, doing things that either I’ve never heard of, or I could not believe,” says Starks. “We are Black, White, Indian, Hispanic, Asian, able bodied or not; it was absolutely beautiful to see,” she says. Ambassadors include bat, lizard, and bear researchers, aerospace engineers, astronomers and data analytics experts working for sports broadcasters.

IF/THEN® Ambassadors’ outreach includes modernizing the image of what a 21st-century scientist looks like. Sometimes, those opportunities present themselves by happenstance. For example, one of Starks’ science teacher friends in Buffalo, New York FaceTimed her one day because the students were skeptical that there were successful African American women scientists with exciting careers. Starks’ phone call with the students set them straight. 

“My heart felt joy that two of the girls decided to do their science report on me and another woman scientist,” says Starks.

Although modern scientists are more diverse now than ever before, the concept has not reached all young people. Yet, social media—including the Twitter hashtag #Thisiswhatascientistlookslike that has gone viral—is helping show diversity in STEM. During this year’s AAAS Annual Meeting while helping at “Family Science Days”—a free public event where professionals like Starks talk to children about science topics, including rockets, robots and recycling—Starks saw hope that youngsters were seeing the diversity in STEM.

“One activity was letting the kids ‘draw a scientist.’ An eight-year old girl I was speaking with drew a girl with pigtails, a lab coat and a computer,” says Starks.

A long-term goal for Starks is that STREAM Innovations can be used as a model for underrepresented neighborhoods across the country. “It is totally the plan to get STREAM Innovations around the world,” says Starks. She hopes that, one day, she can help children worldwide figure out what they like, what their passion is, and important, be a role model that shows them they can achieve anything they set their mind to.

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