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Creating Successful Partnerships Between Schools and STEM Professionals

Paula Garcia Todd matched STEM educators with STEM professionals and these partnerships yielded some incredible results for students in Atlanta!

In my previous company, there was a lot of energy around the concept of STEM outreach, but not many defined ideas on how to do it in the most effective way. I was pulled into many brainstorming discussions that seemed to go around in circles, so finally, I started to use my years in marketing to help us focus.  I decided to do what we commonly call a “Voice of the Customer” exercise, except this time, our “customers” were STEM educators across the country.  I created a survey to better understand their needs in the classroom, and more specifically, the needs that STEM professionals in particular could address.

Teacher Suggestions to improve STEM programs. Image courtesy of author.

We learned a lot from the more than 160 educators who responded to the survey from various grades and areas of the country, but some things were very clear:

  1. STEM programming is underfunded in many schools.
  2. Teachers want to connect with STEM professionals who can provide real-world examples of STEM in action, but most don’t know how to reach STEM professionals.
  3. Teachers want diverse speakers, and they love when speakers build a longer-term relationship with students.

Top teacher-selected STEM program components. Image courtesy of author.

When I was named a AAAS IF/THEN Ambassador in 2019 and Lyda Hill Philanthropies offered us funding to work on projects that could support more curious girls going into STEM careers, I looked back at the results of this survey and created a program to address these gaps voiced by so many STEM educators.  I partnered with a non-profit called Science ATL, the engineers behind the Atlanta Science Festival, which was an important component for several reasons.  First, this science-focused organization has relationships with schools across the metro-Atlanta area, so I knew they could widen my reach. Second, they have experience running programs in schools and the resources to help make such programs successful. Third, many schools don’t realize that it can be politically difficult for a company to choose just one school in their city to support, so having a third party make connections allows for healthy partnerships without as much questioning of how one school in the area was chosen over another.

The program was simple on paper: we partner one STEM educator with one STEM professional for a full year of activities. Our goal was to have all the parties involved benefit from the partnerships in the following ways:

  1. Students, by exposing them to diverse real-world STEM role models
  2. Teachers, by partnering them with a STEM expert to help develop lesson plans and events for their classrooms for a full year
  3. Schools, by developing potentially long-term partnerships with local professionals and businesses
  4. STEM professionals, by allowing them the opportunity to give back to the community through their STEM expertise
  5. STEM businesses, by permitting them to help develop the next generation of STEM pioneers in their communities

Paula Garcia Todd visiting a classroom in Atlanta before schools were closed due to Covid-19. Photo courtesy of author.

Each partnership was asked to coordinate a minimum of eight engagements over the course of the school year.  Engagements included everything from virtual classroom visits (as schools were closed to in-person visitors), to virtual field trips to the STEM professionals’ work settings, to teacher consultations with the STEM professional to improve an experiment or activity they were planning for their classroom, to more intricate projects and competitions. Given the diverse student populations of the schools chosen to participate, we also recruited diverse STEM professionals, with about 60% of them being women and 75% being underrepresented. We ended up with 32 partnerships in our inaugural year, encompassing nine school districts in the Atlanta area and reaching 4,500 students.

We encouraged each partnership to form two goals for the year, which pushed them to consider broader strategic topics of interest instead of just planning monthly events.  Science ATL had a coordinator who oversaw the partnerships, hosted quarterly webinars on various helpful topics, and published a monthly newsletter with examples of successful events and tips on how to build thriving collaborations.  Each partnership received a small stipend towards their goals.

A STEM professional leading a discussion with her partnered classroom.

Through these partnerships, many schools got new gardens, some classrooms got creative with “brown bag” STEM kits that were picked up at the school for activities to be done at home, we had winners in the local Rube Goldberg competition, and an underwater robotics team that won their regional competition and advanced to nationals thanks to the help of their STEM professional!  Multiple partnerships also took time to focus on exposing girls to STEM careers by inviting interactive panels and lectures on women in STEM.  When asked if they would consider continuing their partnerships next school year, 85% of educators said yes, and when asked if they felt empowered to form new STEM partnerships within their community, 88% of educators responded yes! 

Teacher testimonials compiled into this image by the author.

Although hard to recreate a full program like this, any STEM professional considering engaging with a local school should seriously consider forming a partnership with the school versus just scheduling a yearly visit – we learned there is tremendous impact from a continued relationship between an educator and a STEM professional!

A headshot of Paula Garcia Todd, a woman in a blue dress with long dark hair.
Paula Garcia Todd has made significant contributions in drug delivery through her work at Dow Chemical, DuPont, and now IFF (International Flavors & Fragrances) for the past 18 years.  Her vast experience ranges from process engineering in manufacturing settings to creating patented polymer innovations to solve critical formulation issues for pharmaceutical companies around the world.  Paula is passionate about introducing STEM to children and has volunteered on boards and organizations focused on increasing the number of female and under-represented students in STEM fields, especially engineering, for the past decade.  Paula holds a Bachelor of Science and Master of Science in Chemical Engineering from the Pennsylvania State University. 
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Students gather around a teacher with a science example in hand.