SustainIndy Grant helps Kheprw Institute expand eSTEAM initiative

by Chris Bavender

Each year, the Kheprw Institute (KI) runs an entrepreneurship, science, technology, engineering, arts, and math (eSTEAM) camp in the summer, as well as some after-school programming throughout the year focused on technology. But the makeup of the club has been predominantly boys. Now, with the help of a $10,000 SustainIndy Community Grant, the institute hopes to change that.

“As the Kheprw Institute works to empower community through self mastery, we realize that there is a need for targeted eSTEAM programs particularly for female students of color. For the past three years, the Kheprw Institute has engaged both male and female youths ages 8 to 18 in eSTEAM activities via our Tech Wizards program and our year-round internship,” said Aghilah Nadaraj, Girls eSTEAM Club coordinator. “However, the makeup has been 80% to 90% male. This initiative specifically targets and engages females, who are generally underrepresented in STEM fields academically and professionally.”

Founded in 2003, KI is a community organization headquartered in the Crown Hill neighborhood that works to create a “more just, equitable, human-centered world by nurturing youth and young adults to be leaders, critical thinkers and doers.”

“Kheprw Institute sees the people in any community as its most valuable assets and is committed to working with those who are economically disenfranchised to bring about change that leads to empowered, self-sustainable communities,” said Pambana Uishi, KI office manager and eSTEAM program coordinator.

Run by a diverse group of dedicated staff, students, and community teachers, KI focuses its work in the areas of economy, education, empowerment, and environment. “Our mantra is ‘Community Empowerment Through Self Mastery.’ It highlights our commitment to promoting community self-reliance by investing in the skills, knowledge, and capacities of youth, young adults, and the people living in the community,” Uishi said. “This contributes to the betterment of communities resulting in both real and intangible benefits, enhancing the quality of life, and creating self-determining, sustainable communities.”

STEMming loss of interest

The Girl’s eSTEAM Club will provide 20 girls ages 10 to 18 with the opportunity to attend one day a week during the school year. “We wanted to target this age group because it is a critical point where girls often lose interest due to lack of encouragement, support, and exposure,” Nadaraj said. “A report from the National Women’s Law Center and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund examines the challenges African American girls face in education, including the lack of adequate STEM resources in schools they are far more likely to attend,” she added. “While there are no local statistics on girls and STEM or African American girls and STEM in particular, a national study by the Girls Scout Research Institute states that girls start to lose interest in math and science in middle school.”

Nadaraj said a National Science Foundation study found that in 2010, just 10.6 percent of bachelor’s degrees, 7.9 percent of master’s degrees, and 3.9 percent of doctorate degrees in science and engineering were awarded to women of color. “Women are 50 percent of the total U.S. college-educated workforce, but only 29 percent of the science and engineering workforce. Fewer than 1 in 10 employed engineers and scientists are women of color, despite making up 18 percent of the U.S. population, according to the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, National Science Foundation,” Nadaraj said.

The girls will participate in a variety of eSTEAM activities such as coding, videography, math, and makerspace activities, including 3D printing, robotics, game animation, music production, and digital photography. “They will also engage in hands-on activities of investigation, exploration and creativity, develop or enhance their critical thinking, and work collaboratively in a fun atmosphere. Assisted by an adult club coordinator, positive interaction and teamwork will be encouraged,” said Nadaraj. “The girls will also learn about careers in STEAM and how STEAM is used in and by businesses, and will be exposed to professionals in various STEAM fields—for example, informatics, biotechnology, chemistry, and engineering.”

KI believes “education is power.” “When Kheprw Institute talks about education, we are not focusing on formal education in schools. In fact, formal education, while having good intentions, often mis-educates and hinders the development of critical and creative human beings willing and prepared to take their gifts and talents and address community challenges,” Uishi said. “To be clear, we believe formal education is important, just not the end-all and be-all for creating self-reliant, self-determined communities.”

 Nadaraj agrees. “We are an organization rooted in community empowerment. Realizing that we have power within ourselves and collectively, education is vital to this empowerment,” she said. “It is our belief that the community is the classroom. By creating and maintaining spaces or environments that encourage meaningful, critical dialogue among community members young and old, a much more organic educational experience takes place.”

Cultivating community knowledge

Subject matters discussed typically come out of the students’ cultural communities and lived experiences. “These subjects can range anywhere from the critical community review of Jay-Z’s latest album, the challenges of food access in our communities, gentrification, and of course the never-ending debate about the role of police and the challenges of crime in our communities,” Nadaraj said. “By educating ourselves and others, we cultivate the collective knowledge and intelligence within our communities, which is then brought to bear on finding and implementing solutions to address the challenges we face.”

KI will work with the School for Community Learning, an independent elementary school in Butler-Tarkington, to recruit for and engage girls in the eSTEAM club. “We have also had some preliminary discussion with IPS School 43’s leadership. They have expressed interesting in partnering with us on this program,” Nadaraj said. “We have had some preliminary discussion with Shortridge High School about collaborating on a variety of projects and are hoping that the girls’ eSTEAM program will be one of the points of collaboration.”

KI will also reach out to young women, educators, and professionals in STEM-related areas at their university partners—Butler University, Purdue University, and IUPUI—as well as their corporate partners. “By helping them develop their interests and skills in this area, we are encouraging young girls to bring their gifts, talents, and creativity to the STEM fields, which can only help to better our communities and our lives,” Uishi said.

The Kheprw Institute has always looked for and implemented programs and initiatives to address the challenges faced by its communities, Uishi added. “We are innovative in that we tap into the undervalued assets in our community, which is its human capital. We start where we are with what we have and build and expand from there,” Uishi said. “This is what we encourage our youth, young adults, and others to do. All of our programs are collaborative activities, and the Girls eSTEAM Club will expand on existing partnerships and bring new ones.”

Chris Bavender is a freelance writer in SoBro with more than 20 years’ experience as a print and broadcast journalist. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram