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Q&A: Elementary Institute of Science on 59 Years of STEM Advocacy

Debra Roy, president of the board of directors for a San Diego nonprofit, said what started as an after-school club run by volunteers now runs weekend and partnership programs that serve over 2,500 students per year.

STEM science, technology, engineering, math illustration concept
(TNS) — Debra Roy has learned a lot in her life from the people who nurtured and encouraged her interests and curiosities. It helped her along the path to earn degrees in physics, electrical engineering and technology management. Along the way, it's been important to her to do the same for others by promoting and working with kids to encourage them in science, technology, engineering, art and math.

"Investing in our future with all that I have is important to me. These students have the answers to questions we haven't even thought about asking, so I want to enable the continued flow of knowledge and sharing for all," she says. "STEM (and art) facilitate this kind of equity and sustainability."

As president of the board of directors for the Elementary Institute of Science, she has the opportunity to do this on a regular basis. The nonprofit, which started as an after-school program in 1964, provides after-school, weekend, summer and specialized school partnership programming focused on hands-on science activities and instruction.

Roy, 65, is also a staff engineer with General Atomics Aeronautical Systems and a Certified Six Sigma Black Belt. She lives in San Diego's Encanto/Skyline neighborhood with her husband, Bennie, and they have two sons (Benjamin and David) and a daughter (Sarah). She took some time to talk about her work with the science nonprofit, her own background in STEM, and the connection between STEM and her fashion designs.

Q: Tell us about the Elementary Institute of Science.

A: Our mission is to inspire a love of science and create opportunities for diverse children and youth. We were founded in 1964, during the civil rights movement. We are an educational equity and social justice organization with science as our engine. We started out as a small, after-school club run by volunteers and a limited paid staff. By 2014, we were serving approximately 700 students per year with after-school, summer camp and specialized high school programs. In 2015, we added programs to provide enrichment for approximately 2,000 students, and we now regularly serve more than 2,500 students each year.

We collaborate with schools, parents, businesses and community partners to engage students in hands-on science learning. Our after-school, weekend and school partnership programs broaden access to STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) education, foster critical thinking, expand technical skills and encourage students to pursue STEM careers. Our programs are focused on underserved students between 7 and 17 years old, in southeastern San Diego, where our 15,000-square-foot STEM learning center is located. Our facilities include eight learning labs for teaching biology, chemistry, physics, engineering, robotics and computer science. Our instructors are graduate-level students with current STEM expertise, and we've been providing hands-on science experiences for five decades.

Q: How were you introduced to the organization?

A: As parents of growing and inquisitive children, we sought a place where they could be exposed to STEM and have fun. We were blessed to find EIS right in our neighborhood. Each of my children shared the opportunities and exposures only EIS could offer them. Over the years that followed, I continued to look at the organization as a beacon for STEM in our community, so when the opportunity to speak at their Girls Take Flight graduation ceremonies came about, I was delighted to represent my company, General Atomics, as a keynote speaker.

Q: Why did you want to become involved in working with them?

A: EIS collides head on with my passion to expose youth to STEM. Exposing them early in a child's development fosters a foundation for STEM fluency, and we all know that STEM/STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, math) is the foundation for everything we experience in life. Therefore, EIS sets the path of students for their life journeys.

Q: You have more than 25 years of experience in engineering; how did your interest in engineering, and science in general, get started?

A: My father was a carpenter and always taught us to "measure twice, cut once" whenever we built or crafted anything, and my grandmother taught me how to sew and construct garments. These exposures taught me so many engineering principles that it became part of the natural fabric of my being to know how to design and translate measurements to real-life objects for our everyday use, from the table I made when I was 7, to the garments I fashioned for my mother, older sister and many of their friends.

In 11th grade, my physics teacher in Baton Rouge, La., made the difference in my life. I was always good at math, but Miss Vertle T. Jones brought physics to life. Until then, I was destined to be an interior decorator — she changed the whole trajectory of my life. Then, during my senior year of high school, the chair of the physics department at Southern University visited my family and offered me a scholarship. I remember him asking my parents to allow me to attend college and live on campus. Thankfully, they agreed. I received a bachelor's degree in physics with a minor in electrical engineering from Southern, a master's degree in technology management from the University of Phoenix, and a Certified Six Sigma Black Belt credential from the University of San Diego.

Q: What was it about STEM that resonated with you?

A: I am a problem solver and it sets the tools, skills and resources I need to successfully problem solve. I live, work and play in the world of STEM and STEAM. There is engineering in design and all "things" are designed with a purpose. It is the very essence of everything we experience.

Q: And what is it about STEM that has been able to hold your interest?

A: It's a constant; the inner workings may change, but the work is a constant process.

Q: Your bio with the USA Science & Engineering Festival says that you're also a fashion designer? How did you get started in fashion design?

A: My grandmother taught me how to make patterns and sew by hand. I made my first shift dress by hand, making the pattern from old newspaper, when I was 6 years old. "Measure twice, cut once" is key for designing fashion and designing products in engineering. I create pieces that accentuate the flow of the body. Fabric design, texture, color and patterns all speak to make a garment and the garment speaks for you. I seek to create and innovate. It takes great engineering to fashion a garment that fits all aspects of our human bodies — math, physics and engineering are key components, with math for the measurements, physics for the flow of the fabric, and engineering for construction.

Q: What is the best advice you've ever received?

A: From my mother, who said to never give up, which led to my motto to stay the course, stay encouraged.

Q: What is one thing people would be surprised to find out about you?

A: I sang on a couple of commercial jingles for TaylorMade (Golf) and Pitney Bowes.

Q: Please describe your ideal San Diego weekend.

A: Quiet time studying my Bible; a walk on the beach with my husband, Bennie; spending time with my children; hiking with my daughter, Sarah, and peeking at her pet tortoise, Kobe; art museums with my son, David, and watching as he creates mixed-media art; video chatting with my son, Benjamin (who's in Port Orchard, Washington) for my vocal lessons, and interacting with my daughter-in-love and our three grandsons.

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