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This Chemist Is Helping Black Girls In St. Louis Fall In Love With STEM

Black Girls Do STEM's curriculum includes hands-on experiments in workshops and mentor networking events for area teens.
Black Girls Do STEM
Black Girls Do STEM's curriculum includes hands-on experiments in workshops and mentor networking events for area teens.

There is a growing movement to decolonize and demystify the field of science, technology, engineering and math — and Cynthia Chapple is among those changemakers locally. She often emphasizes that approaching STEM topics doesn’t have to be daunting. For Chapple, aspects of everyday life incorporate STEM: cooking recipes, clothing, makeup, astrology, bus routes and more.

“It's not this elite, super complicated, only-for-special-people field. Everyone, in some aspect of life, is engaging with STEM and probably has some interest in something that's very STEM applicable. And we just need to start saying that more and then actually showing kids by not overcomplicating subject matters,” she told St. Louis on the Air.

The chemist is the founder of Black Girls Do STEM, a local organization aimed at helping Black girls in sixth through 12th grade tackle barriers often faced by women of color in the field. Data from the National Science Foundation shows that Black women and women of color are still underrepresented in the industry.

On Wednesday’s talk show, Chapple joined host Sarah Fenske to talk more about what Black Girls Do STEM offers and about her own journey in the field.

Growing up naturally gifted in math, Chapple found herself landing STEM opportunities that excited her. But being one of the few Black kids in the room — and in areas far from her community in the southside of Chicago — led to an uncomfortable feeling she couldn’t quite articulate at the time. But a unique mentoring program in high school helped inspire her to stay in the field.

“One of the leads for the mentoring program was an aerospace engineer who had worked for NASA. And I thought she was like the best thing that had ever dropped into my life at that point,” Chapple said. The field sounded enticing, “because you think about how you can help society, you can help people and create really cool things. But you also get paid well, you have flexibility, and you're doing challenging things that excite you.”

After moving to the St. Louis region for graduate school, Chapple decided to stay. And what started as a social media campaign to highlight the contributions of Black women in science and math has since turned into many mentorship opportunities and workshops.

“So that was a high school experience that really just fell in my lap, [and] I was so grateful for these women who just saw an opportunity to go do something for Black girls in a space where they thought it was needed,” she said. “And I feel like me doing Black Girls Do STEM is reminiscent of that.”

Currently, Chapple is gearing up for the organization’s upcoming STEM Saturday Academy. It’s a free program for sixth to ninth graders that focuses on career pathways of the future with workshops and networking opportunities. The program serves youth who do not have STEM exposure or access. Mentors and volunteers interested in offering their expertise are welcome as well.

Related Event

What: Parent and Student Orientation for STEM Saturday Academy
When: 1 to 3 p.m. Feb. 13 and Feb. 27
Where: Online

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Lara is the Engagement Editor at St. Louis Public Radio.