WILMINGTON — A partnership a few years in the making has paid dividends already for Serviam Girls Academy. The tuition-free school for fifth- through eighth-graders will receive $250,000 over the next four years as one of two anchor schools in the Chemours Future of Engineering, Science, Trades and Technology partnership program, also known as ChemFEST.
The announcement was made Nov. 8, as several Chemours employees made the short walk from company headquarters to Serviam, which is located at Grace United Methodist Church. The award will be used to fund a Chemours STEM Discovery Capstone Program for eighth-grade students at Serviam, as well as a project-based learning approach for all of the school’s students beginning with the 2022-23 academic year, the company said in a press release.
Serviam president Peggy Prevoznik Heins said the financial aspect is one part of Chemours’ investment in the school. She said she only found out about it in the last few weeks, and the timing was ideal because Serviam has been wanting to institute a yearlong capstone project for eighth-graders.
“They said, ‘We’d like to invest in a STEM discovery capstone,’” she said. “So, they’ve committed to $250,000 over four years to help us build this capstone project. It’s a game-changer, particularly for us, who is 100 percent donor-supported.”
“Our vision of it — and this is early, early on — is that the eighth-graders, probably working in teams, they identify a problem. How do you investigate the problem? What might be potential solutions? What do you need to get to the solutions?”
The student teams will do a report or model that addresses their issue. Heins said a possibility is to have Chemours employees come to the school to assess the projects.
The other school receiving a financial investment is EastSide Charter School, also located near the company’s headquarters. Chemours will build a community STEM facility there, expected to be completed by the summer of 2023.
In a press release, Chemours president and chief executive officer Mark Newman said the next 20 years will bring more than 800,000 job openings in STEM-related fields. ChemFEST is one way, he said, to ensure that more students from more backgrounds are exposed to, excited by and interested in those disciplines.
Alexandra Pierre-Charles and Sumsita Bandyopadhyay were among the Chemours employees visiting Serviam the day of the announcement. Pierre-Charles said the idea of investing in middle schools originated with a diversity action plan that Chemours developed in the wake of the racial unrest that roiled the nation — including Wilmington — following the murder of George Floyd in May 2020. The commitment to ChemFEST was solidified last November.
“They realized that a lot of the programs that they already had were dedicated to high school and college students. We thought, ‘Let’s create a pipeline and reach these kids earlier than high school so that they can make better decisions in the classes that they choose in high school if they’re exposed to these kinds of disciplines early on,’” said Pierre-Charles, a chemist who works in Chemours’ product sustainability group.
The second part of the partnership with Chemours has been a few years in the making, Heins said.
“Initially, they thought seventh and eighth, but they’ve expanded it to our entire science program. They’ve done inventory. They’re doing programming,” Heins said.
Chemours has sent experts to the school to conduct experiments with the girls. They’ve provided science books and lab notebooks, lab aprons, goggles and other safety materials, she said. With the establishment of ChemFEST, the company now invests in education at the college, high school and middle school levels.
Heins said STEM is an important component of learning, but a gender gap still exists in the professional world, particularly for women of color. Having a connection with people in their own community is one way to address that.
“They can see. They can understand,” Heins said. “None of us can dream of something we have never seen. But once you see, you can dream even bigger. Not only will they see people who are doing this, they’re going to see people — women, and women of color who look like them — doing this, so they can imagine that they would be there.”
Bandyopadhyay, who holds a doctorate in environmental toxicology and leads Chemours customer-service operations in North America, said one of the goals is to create opportunities for more students to be successful in STEM, and to do that, an investment in an earlier level of education was necessary. Many younger students believe they are going into a STEM field as an adult, but the statistics say otherwise.
“The gap is surprising. It’s shocking,” she said. “So that’s one of the reasons our company’s committed.”
Bandyopadhyay added that studies show when girls hear from women in these professions, “it’s going to register more, and they see that that’s a success story, one of them working for a company like that.”
Pierre-Charles said one of the reasons she entered chemistry was because of the interest someone showed in her as a student at an all-girls school in New York.
“I had a high school teacher my senior year who dedicated a month of one-on-one sessions to teach me general chemistry to prepare me for college. She got me so excited about it. The way she explained it, she made it so interesting,” she said.
The STEM fields are not easy, Heins said, but the Serviam students have the “grit” it takes to be successful in them. Building relationships with local professionals can only help.
All photos by Mike Lang.