With a $2.4 million grant from the National Science Foundation, the UC Davis Center for Integrated Computing and STEM Education, or C-STEM, will establish a new initiative to introduce Black/African American girls to engineering and robotics and provide them with resources to lead in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, in their schools, communities and careers.
The Ujima Girls in Robotics Leadership Project is a free, hands-on engineering and robotics program that teaches girls in middle and high school engineering and leadership in a culturally relevant environment. The project is led by C-STEM Director and Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Harry Cheng, Faheemah Mustafaa, assistant professor in the UC Davis School of Education, and Teresa Aldredge, former board president of the Umoja Community Education Foundation and a senior advisor to the C-STEM Center.
“This is an exciting opportunity to further encourage the creativity, leadership and scientific genius of Black girls and young women in ways that many don’t have access to in their day-to-day schooling,” Mustafaa said. “I am hopeful about the mutually empowering benefit of this project for the participants, our research team, and everyone else involved.”
Introducing girls to STEM applications and leadership in middle school and nurturing that interest through high school increases the likelihood that they will stay in the field. Supporting Black girls’ STEM skills in identity-affirming, fun and supportive environments lowers access barriers and further increases their odds of pursuing STEM careers.
“This grant will illuminate the talent that our Black girls already have inside them and provide a safe and nurturing environment for growth and development,” said Aldredge. “I’m honored to be a part of this important endeavor for our community.”
Building a community
The Ujima GIRL Camp takes the C-STEM Center’s already successful GIRL/GIRL+ camps — which have been serving middle and high school girls respectively across California since 2013 and 2018 — and adds the cultural piece for African American students. The “Ujima” name is a Swahili word for “collective work and responsibility,” an important principle in many Black/African American spaces. It also symbolizes the program’s emphasis on community.
Together with California Community Colleges and the Umoja Community Education Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to enhancing the educational experience of African American students, the team will recruit African American college students to lead each Ujima GIRL or GIRL+ Camp, develop curriculum and serve as mentors.
Cheng’s vision is to build a “mentoring pipeline” that keeps participants involved from their first Ujima GIRL Camp through college. Ujima GIRL Camp alumni can return as assistant coaches when they reach high school and also participate in the GIRL+ Camp. GIRL/GIRL+ alumni in college can return as coaches. In addition, Cheng also wants to encourage participants to create their own Ujima GIRL clubs at their local schools, where they can share their experiences with other girls.
“We want to give students a life-changing experience and inspire them to go into college, post-secondary studies and careers in STEM,” said Cheng. “This program will help them make a real-world connection with math, because we want to give them the tools to be successful in their academic programs and learn in the years ahead.”
In the first three years, the program will host 48 Ujima GIRL and 48 GIRL+ camps statewide and nurture about 2,000 students. If successful, the team hopes to increase that number and expand the program nationwide.
“I hope that we can increase the number of partners and sponsors so we can effectively expand and inspire more girls with the resources they need,” said Cheng. “There are so many who want to contribute to the cause, and we stand ready to provide the opportunity to join forces and work together.”
UC Davis C-STEM Center is currently recruiting a program manager for the project. The organizers hope to hold the first camps in summer 2022.