Girls Learn STEM Skills Through Pearl Project

Pearl Project helps make sure underserved girls are STEM literate.

This week a group of about 30 girls from the Herndon area went back to school with many new skills they learned while participating in The Pearl Project.

The Pearl Project is the creation of Robin McDougal, chief executive officer of e-GLAM, a company that makes fashionable computer cases and business products. She is also the founder of Educators 2.0 Inc., a foundation promoting science, technology, engineering and math literacy for youth in underserved communities.

With the help of community members and volunteers and funding through Educators 2.0, McDougal’s Pearl Project has helped children throughout the region learn more about STEM subjects.

In mid-August the group of youth, mostly girls, gathered at for a few days, where Jacqueline Phan helped organize a Pearl Project workshop.

Phan, a community volunteer who has been involved in many activities in Reston and Herndon, was trained to lead Pearl workshops. For two days the girls gathered to go over lessons and work on projects that would give them tools to take back to school.

The name of the Pearl Project is meant to imply that a pearl is born in a harsh environment and is nurtured into something valuable, McDougal said.  

McDougal said she is an educator by profession and loves to write and design curriculum. She said there are many students who don’t have access to things like museums, or technology at home and she created the Pearl Project to help bring some more advanced skills to students who could use them most.

Communities often make sure that students have all they need in terms of basic education, but they are lacking in helping ensure they are also technology literate, McDougal said.

“We must teach our children as early as possible to be STEM literate,” she said.

McDougal said research shows that girls and minorities don’t have strong spatial reasoning, but it is something they can learn. The students who take part in the Pearl Project can come as they are and the volunteers will teach them the skills they need.

The lack of skills like spatial reasoning, isn’t necessarily because of socioeconomics, McDougal said. She said it could be because girls aren’t pushed to study it as much.

In addition to spatial reasoning, the Pearl Project also focuses on critical thinking skills, and persistence. Science and technology aren’t easy subject matters, so persistence is key, McDougal said.

“We’re teaching them persistence through spatial reasoning,” she said.

Another focus of the program is self efficacy. McDougal said people feel successful when they are asked to do something they know how to do, so they aim to make participants feel successful doing something they don’t know how to do as well.

McDougal said the program echoes her real-life experiences, and means a lot to her. She grew up poor, but succeeded because community members believed in her, she said.

She said she is looking to pass on the tools to Phan to make sure Phan can pass them on to youth in the community.

The Pearl Project program is based on physics and is geared to girls in 5th through 8th grade. McDougal said the program means a lot for girls, so they seek to include as many girls as possible.

In addition to teaching the girls STEM skills that can help them succeed at school, the Pearl Project also teaches life skills to promote self esteem.

The first lesson in the program is called "How High Can You Fly?" and ties self esteem to aerodynamics. The concept of drag on an airplane is associated with the phrase “I will eliminate…” and girls think of what they can eliminate in their lives to reduce drag and help propel themselves forward.

In other lessons, girls create roller coasters, learn to draw to scale, work on challenges, examine and build bridges and more. They are also given journals and T-shirts.

“We wanted them to feel like they’re part of a community,” McDougal said.

She said she also believes in serendipity. During the program the girls will learn the concepts, and then the volunteers will get out of their way to see what they can come up with. McDougal said often they create things the organizers hadn’t even fathomed.

At the end of each program a Smart and Beautiful Showcase is held. In this case, the words aren’t describing the girls, but the work, McDougal said. It means Smart technology, Beautiful design.

Phan said when people hear about the program and see its impact, they are eager to help and ask how they can get involved.

Throughout the two-day program, as well as the Smart and Beautiful Showcase, local company Wheels for Kids provided transportation for the participants to make sure they could attend. Area organization CORE lent computers to the program for use.

The program was launched in March 2010 and will reach about 400 students this year. McDougal hopes to reach one million by 2015.

McDougal said she will continue to work on new curriculum for the Pearl Project so the girls who have gone through the program can continue learning skills that will help them with their careers.

To learn more about the program, visit Educators 2.0 Inc. at WorldClassEducators.com

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