Empowering Black youth to pursue STEM
Waterloo Engineering Outreach’s community program STEMpowered tackles the lack of Black representation in STEM
Waterloo Engineering Outreach’s community program STEMpowered tackles the lack of Black representation in STEMBy Charlotte Danby Faculty of Engineering
The University of Waterloo’s Faculty of Engineering Outreach program STEMpowered provides Black youth with opportunities to engage in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) activities to inspire their interest in exploring further studies and careers in STEM. In just one year, the program has increased its reach by 680 per cent.
Waterloo Engineering Outreach created STEMpowered in partnership with the Caribbean Association of Waterloo Region and BrainSTEM Alliance and launched in 2022 with funding from Scotiabank. There were 101 participants that first year. In 2023, 780 Black youth in grades K-6, 7-8 and 9-12 participated in various initiatives over the March school break and the summer holidays.
The program’s fast growth is testament to its importance; encouraging young Black people to see themselves as future STEM professionals and thus, increase Black representation in STEM fields. It is supported by a community of partners which now includes the Ethiopian Association of Kitchener-Waterloo, NIROW (Nigerians in Waterloo Region) and the Peel District School Board as well as funding from donors.
Seeing is believing
Key to the program’s success is providing culturally connected and age-appropriate workshop activities and campus experiences that open participants’ eyes to STEM in fun and engaging ways. These are led by two co-op students and include games such as “Cat or Not-Cat" which uses images to challenge participants’ perceptions of what they see and introduce the concept of bias in machine learning, as well as visits to the RoboHub, the Earth Sciences Museum and chemistry labs.
“Being a part of the STEMpowered team has been a wonderful experience,” says Favour Emma-Esekhile, a program instructor and second-year civil engineering student. “As a co-op student, running activities for Black youth in STEM has been eye-opening. Seeing their curiosity and enthusiasm grow through the STEM-based workshops we run has truly inspired me. STEMpowered is more than just a program, it's a movement shaping the future of young Black STEM professionals. I am proud to be a part of it and help increase Black representation in STEM.”
Activities and events feature guest speakers and mentors from program partners, members of the University’s National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) and the Indigenous and Black Engineering and Technology (IBET) Momentum Fellowship. These role models share their professional and academic experiences with the groups, and answer questions related to study pathways and career opportunities. This representation is crucial; one high-school participant wrote a thank you letter saying they could now see themselves doing STEM in the future.
“Ensuring future professionals have STEM knowledge is fundamental to Canada’s economy,” says Beth Daniel (P.Eng., PMP), Board Member & Community Program and Events Committee Lead (Volunteer) for the Ethiopian Association KW and Surrounding Area.
“And ensuring that all youth are empowered to pursue STEM knowledge will make Canada a stronger social leader. Our partnership with STEMpowered successfully shows how communities and universities can work together to break down barriers in underserved areas and contribute to collective learning, development and growth.”
Funding the future
STEMpowered relies on funding support. A supporter from the start, the Yves and Cynthia Bled Future Achievers Foundation is committed to assisting women, Black and Indigenous youth in pursuing post-secondary education.
“There is a serious lack of Black representation in post-secondary education – particularly in the STEM fields,” says Claudette Bled, a social worker and co-administrator of the Yves and Cynthia Bled Future Achievers Foundation. “STEMpowered has our support for creating the space and opportunities for Black youth in grades K-12 to become aware of what is possible, feel inspired by their future prospects and pursue further studies.”
Demand for the program is high. With ongoing funding support, the Outreach team and their STEMpowered partners plan to build on their achievements and grow the program to sustain impact.
“It is our goal to reach more Black youth through meaningful STEM opportunities as well as maintain our connections with participants through a pathway of programming,” says Sophie Nasato, senior manager on the Waterloo Engineering Outreach team. “True impact is achieved through sustained messaging and engagement — not solely a one-off camp or workshop.”
STEMpowered is free to participants and registration is open to any youth who self-identify as Black. The program is made possible with support from the Yves and Cynthia Bled Future Achievers Foundation, the Engineering Equity Fund, Scotiabank, Peel District School Board, Actua, NSERC PromoScience and Art Church.
Get in touch with Sophie Nasato, Senior Manager, Engineering Outreach at the University of Waterloo, to find out how you can support STEMpowered as a sponsor, donor, co-op student or community partner.
Read Engineering outreach receives community allyship award to learn more about Waterloo Engineering Outreach’s award-winning partnership with NIROW.
The University of Waterloo acknowledges that much of our work takes place on the traditional territory of the Neutral, Anishinaabeg and Haudenosaunee peoples. Our main campus is situated on the Haldimand Tract, the land granted to the Six Nations that includes six miles on each side of the Grand River. Our active work toward reconciliation takes place across our campuses through research, learning, teaching, and community building, and is co-ordinated within the Office of Indigenous Relations.