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Nonprofit Seeks to Connect African American Girls to STEM Fields

The nonprofit Black Girls Do Engineer hopes to provide its member students with STEM-related access, awareness and advocacy. The group hopes to connect 2 million students to the STEM field by 2050.

A diagram showing the different branches of STEM study.
Kara Branch was raised by a single mother in a low-income household. Plenty of people told her she was smart, but none of them provided direction.

Branch, who graduated from the Prairie View A&M University, was fortunate to find her own way into STEM and has enjoyed a successful career as a chemical engineer in the petroleum and aerospace industries. The best part of the job, she said, is the freedom to innovate and design things that are made to last a long time.

She continues to do just that as the founder and CEO of the nonprofit Black Girls Do Engineer (BGDE). Branch invented the program as a way to give academically gifted African American girls and college-age women opportunities to develop STEM knowledge and skills beyond the classroom, preparing them to compete for spots at top universities and high-paying jobs in the engineering, science and medical industries.

“There’s been a lack of exposure for way too long,” Branch said. “Most have never met a Black female engineer.”

BGDE was established in 2019 in Houston, where Branch lives and works. Since then, she opened chapters in New Orleans and Los Angeles. All told, 2,200 girls have participated so far — 60 percent of them representing low-income households. The organization has held more than 150 workshops and trainings, and awarded $44,000 in scholarships to members, according to its website.

The inaugural group four years ago consisted of only 18 girls, and now the current membership in Houston alone is 170. Branch said the program serves students between the ages of 6 and 21, and all must complete a competitive application process for admission. The minimum commitment is a four-hour workshop one Saturday per month from October until May. Activities vary by age group, but hands-on workshops include robotics, coding, soldering, chemical-based product development and dozens of other activities. Through these workshops, participants learn about mechanical, civil, chemical, electrical, aerospace and software engineering, as well as artificial intelligence, the medical industry and renewable energy.

“There’s so much we can do,” Branch said. “I’ve never done the same activities twice.”

Beyond the workshops, members can attend presentations, visit colleges and shadow engineers at work during the summer months. There’s also an annual college signing celebration day when graduating high school seniors announce where they will continue their education. Many graduates secured a variety of scholarships, Branch said, adding that most members are also involved in school activities like athletics, chess teams, music and academic clubs.

According to the BGDE website, women of color make up less than 5 percent of the STEM workforce. It also cites a 2015 figure from the National Center for Education Statistics that indicates only 2.5 percent of African American women who attended college or universities earned degrees in STEM-related majors.

Branch said she has also reviewed research that says girls typically lose interest in STEM during middle school.

“We can change that,” she said. “They just need a foundation.”

The organization's goal is to provide STEM-related access, awareness and advocacy to 2 million girls by 2050.

Branch said providing opportunities and direction is the most rewarding part of her experience so far.

“It’s really an honor to be part of this,” she said.
Aaron Gifford has several years of professional writing experience, primarily with daily newspapers and specialty publications in upstate New York. He attended the University at Buffalo and is based in Cazenovia, NY.