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Helping interest in STEM take root

A graduate student’s passion project is opening up opportunities for dozens of Kingston-area grade school students.

[Queen's University Kathryn Hong Awesome Foundation Girl SySTEM Garrett Elliott]
Kathryn Hong introduces speakers during an event called the STEMist Fair held in June. (Supplied Photo)

Women accounted for 39 percent of university graduates aged 25 to 34 with a science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) degree according to a recent Statistics Canada National Household Survey.

This is despite the fact women represent the majority of young university graduates, and despite the increasing importance of STEM programs and a growing demand for tech talent in Canada.

There are a few reasons for this gap – and the simplest one may be a lack of opportunity and exposure. Research shows that students may not necessarily grasp the importance of science and math at a young age, and yet exposure to these activities is critical so they can make future career choices.

Enter the Girls SySTEM program – a pilot project getting underway in Kingston thanks to funding from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC). The program has also attracted private funding from local supporters such as The Awesome Foundation – Kingston, and multinational organizations including Novelis and Abbott Laboratories Limited.

This not-for-profit project aims to connect grade school mentees in grades 7-12 with professional mentors and learning opportunities in the STEM workforce. Since launching in April, the program has been able to facilitate 20 pairings, with a number of new mentees to be added in November through a new partnership to be announced.

A team of four leads the Girls SySTEM program, including one Queen’s graduate and three Queen’s students.

Kathryn Hong founded the program as a way of connecting others with the same opportunities she has had. Ms. Hong, a Masters student in the Department of Biomedical and Molecular Sciences, first became interested in cardiology in grade 11. She says the mentorship she received at that time was instrumental in her academic journey and career path.

“With the help of my mentors, I have gained insight into the diverse avenues of medicine and in doing so, have acquired the confidence, support, and resources to excel,” says Ms. Hong. “I designed this program with the belief that we need to empower young students through first-hand experiences in their desired professional field and intervene at an early point of their academic career to effect substantial change.”

Working alongside Ms. Hong are Caleigh Matheson (Artsci’19), Girls SySTEM’s community director; Christina Yan (Artsci’19), the group’s mentorship coordinator; and Jelena Petrovic (MSc’18), who is working to engage the Kingston community with the organization.

Together, the group is recruiting mentees and mentors; hosting free monthly events focusing on building technical skills, professional development, and gaining leadership and career advice; solidifying their model here in Kingston ahead of a planned province-wide expansion; and growing their network of corporations, benefactors, and supporters to assist with future expansion.

[Queen's University Kathryn Hong Girl SySTEM]
Girl SySTEM mentees participate in an interactive science-based workshop provided by Science Quest, teaching students about changes in properties of matter. (Supplied Photo) 

Their first monthly event is coming up on Sunday, Sept. 30, where the mentees and mentors will gather for their first formal in-person group meeting. In October, program participants will be provided with a personalized tour from a manufacturer that happens to be one of the organization’s leading sponsors.

“Among our goals, we want to raise awareness of the diversity of women holding STEM positions so that we may attempt to alter the belief that STEM roles are solitary or genetically predisposed,” Ms. Hong adds. “We also hope to sustain girls’ interest in STEM throughout their high school careers and provide aspiring young girls with positive role models who will empower, support, and guide them towards career decision making.”

Ms. Hong adds that the Girls SySTEM program is currently seeking professionals working in a STEM field to sign up as mentors, as well as Queen’s student volunteers who can help in running the program. Queen’s faculty are also invited to join the growing mentorship network. 

Mentors, mentees, or volunteers seeking to join the Girls SySTEM program or learn more can visit girlsystemmentorship.com.