Connecting Young Girls with STEM Role Models

Nepris helps show students that engineers aren’t just old men in lab coats and glasses

By: Sabari Raja, Co-founder and CEO of Nepris Inc.

Screenshot 2014-11-24 16.22.13Earlier this fall, the students in Roger Daryel Sellers’ eighth-grade science class in Fort Worth, Texas, were watching on a giant monitor as Raytheon engineer Ashton McCary described how she uses her knowledge of chemistry to keep the tiny microelectronic parts her plant produces from being contaminated.

When it was time for students to ask questions of their virtual guest, one enterprising student piped up: “How much money do you make?”

McCary, a 2011 graduate of UT-Dallas, smiled. “I can tell you the average starting salary for someone in my position is around $60,000 a year,” she said.

The sound of gasps and murmurs filled the room. Then, a host of other questions followed: Do you work on your computer all day, or is it hands-on? What kind of advancement opportunities do you have in your career? Could you describe your typical day?

Something had clicked for these kids. Not only could they see how their lessons in chemical reactions applied outside of school, but a whole new possible career path now lay before them.

That’s the kind of experience we were hoping for when my business partner, Binu Thayamkery, and I co-founded Nepris. We help teachers who are looking for experts in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) to talk to their students by matching them with STEM professionals looking to volunteer in schools. We facilitate these sessions online.

A large percentage of students have no idea what STEM professionals do, or how what they are learning in the classroom is relevant to their lives. And you can’t establish this relevance without showing how STEM subjects apply in the real world. But a majority of teachers don’t have this kind of industry experience, so it’s hard to expect them to make those connections themselves.

That’s where Nepris comes in.

I’ve been in education technology for more than 17 years. For 14 years of this time, I worked for the education technology group at Texas Instruments. I started with an engineering background and then moved into business and market development roles.

I remember being in meetings where industry leaders took a whole day out of their schedules to sit down with school district leaders and discuss how they could contribute in the classroom. But at the end of the day, the reality is that everybody went back to their own busy lives. We had so many people talking about ideas, but there wasn’t an easy solution that was accessible to teachers to help integrate industry into the classroom.

In founding Nepris, we wanted to change that. We wanted to put teachers at the center of the process and give them the tools to be successful, to bring industry experts into their classroom when they think it’s appropriate. Our ultimate vision for Nepris was: How could we make industry engagement a part of the day-to-day classroom experience, as opposed to once or twice a year during career days?

After a small pilot, we did a full launch of the service in February. Since then, we’ve had more than 2,000 teachers from 750 schools in 45 states using the platform—and STEM professionals from more than 800 companies volunteer.

For me, engaging girls in STEM is critical. I grew up in rural India, where my parents own a coconut farm. It was only in my high school years at a private boarding school that I was exposed to women who were running companies, who were successful entrepreneurs—and that was far away from my hometown. Until students see these kinds of role models, they don’t really know what’s possible in their own lives.

If you look at rural school districts, they don’t have any connection to industry. They have very limited opportunities around them, so why not give these same opportunities to rural school districts that urban school districts have? That’s our goal at Nepris—to bridge geographic and gender barriers, and to show students more industry role models, especially women and minorities.

For the students in Mr. Sellers’ class, it was important to learn firsthand from a young woman engineer—a thought that Mr. Sellers expressed himself in a thank-you note to Ashton after the session was over.

“The students were so excited after talking to you,” he wrote. “Thank you so much for taking the time to share your knowledge and profession with our students. Many of our students had the image of an old man in glasses and a lab coat in their minds when they heard the word ‘engineer.’

“Making science and math professions accessible to underrepresented populations … is a personal goal of mine, and you have helped tremendously,” the teacher concluded. He noted that after the session was over, “One of my female students remarked: ‘I could see myself being an engineer.’”

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