Q&A with Shannon Jones, Girls in STEM

A group of kids on a field trip standing in front of a truck that is wrapped in inspirational quotes and says "Ready to turn your passion into progress?".

SHANNON JONES IS from White Hall, Arkansas. She taught third grade, sixth grade, and middle school, in both public and private schools, over about a dozen years. But then, as she says, “Life threw me a curve ball.” It came in the form of two of her family members getting sick, so Shannon left her teaching job to help take care of them. “When both those family members passed away, I knew I wanted to go back into education—but not necessarily the classroom.” Enter the Museum of Discovery’s Girls in STEM program, which has shown Shannon, along with her young female participants, a whole new way to see the world.

Pardon me, but why didn’t you want to go back to the classroom?

I love teaching, but I had told myself if it ever got to the point where I was doing more paperwork than teaching, or attending more meetings than teaching, it would be time to go. And so it was.

After a lot of job applications and interviews, my husband saw a posting for a part-time education position here at the museum and encouraged me to send in my resume and cover letter. The next day they called and said, “Can you come for an interview?” Interviews here at the museum aren’t like job interviews anywhere else. Here we ask you to do some kind of demonstration as part of your interview. It can be a science demonstration. It can be like a TED talk. I did teabag rockets. I don’t know if you’re familiar with teabag rockets.

I can’t say that I am.

I wasn’t familiar with them either until I researched it. You just take a teabag, and then you pull the paper off it and get rid of the staple, cut off the top and empty the tea out. Then you light the bag on fire. As the fire burns down, the teabag rises. The hot air makes it rise. I did that as my demonstration, and then had a round-robin discussion with a table full of people. I just celebrated my third anniversary with the museum. I started out part-time weekends in 2016. Then gradually, as I got my bearings, I started taking on more responsibilities during the week.

Eventually I became involved with the Girls in STEM program, which had started in 2013 and, at the time I began working on it, was operated by another museum employee. Last year, in 2018, I became the Girls in STEM program director.

So what exactly is the Girls in STEM program?

It’s a great program, and so needed—not just in Little Rock, where we do three weeks in the summer, but also across the state, so we’ve expanded and now offer a week in Jonesboro, a week in Stuttgart, and a week in Blytheville. Actually the process starts in January, when we do the vetting of the applications. It’s very competitive, especially here in Little Rock.

Then we alert the girls who’ve been accepted and start scheduling the mentors. During each Girls in STEM week, we have two different mentors who come in every day, Monday through Friday, a mentor for the morning and a mentor for the afternoon.

How old are these girls in the program?

They’re generally 12, 13, 14 years old, but some are older, depending on how long they’ve been with the program. That’s kind of where all the studies that have been done the last several years usually focus on. A lot of our girls aren’t normally being exposed to STEM. They don’t have STEM opportunities in their schools or it’s just not on their radar. With the program here, it has evolved tremendously. It started out with word-of-mouth. Then as those girls got older, they had younger siblings who were coming through the program. It got to be where we had more girls than we had weeks or availability to do the program.

So what’s a typical week like for these young Girls in STEM?

We have the best mentors. For example, we have a team from L’Oréal that comes out, these young women who are chemical engineers. They’re creating these formulas for this fantastic makeup. They’re winning all these awards, and they’re getting to travel.

L’Oréal’s been with us since the beginning. They send out a team of women every summer, usually six or seven people from each of the different facets at L’Oréal—somebody from HR, somebody who does their social media posts, then the scientists and engineers.

They do a virtual reality game with the girls wearing headsets. They also bring out enough materials for the girls to actually create lip gloss by adding different pigments. I heard one of the girls, a couple of years ago, say, “I never knew that you could have an interest in makeup and a STEM career and put them together.” It just blew their minds.

It’s fantastic to watch the girls interacting with the mentors. They ask these really in-depth questions like, “How did you know you wanted to do this?” Or, “You look like I do. You came from the same background. How did you get out?” Or, “How did you achieve your goals?” That’s when a lot of the really great questions and a lot of the great interactions come in, when they’re one-on-one or they’re doing an activity.

When I first got involved with the program, we would do a survey at the beginning of the week asking the girls questions like, “What do you like to do? What are your hobbies, your interests? Who are your role models? Who do you look up to?” Then, as the very last question, we would ask them to draw a picture of a scientist. Nine times out of ten, they would draw a male with a lab coat in a lab, with beakers and test tubes and the whole nine yards. That’s their view. When you ask them about STEM careers, they would talk about being a doctor or a nurse. It never occurred to them to be a chemical scientist working for L’Oréal.

It’s an eye-opening experience for them.

It really is. We also have a fantastic group of ladies from Caterpillar. They have HR people, PR people, engineers. They talk to the girls about what goes into designing and building these big machines. They bring in team-building activities for the girls, and it’s fantastic to be able to see them work as a team.

The state crime lab also comes in, bringing maybe eight or nine people. They do forensics, bullet analysis, serology, chemical analysis, all these really cool, hands-on activities. The mentors do a two-hour session in either the morning or the afternoon, and they talk about how the state crime lab in Arkansas is made up mostly of women, which is very surprising to the girls. “Why do we see on TV, the CSI shows, that all of them are men?” they say. Just being able to expose these girls to STEM careers through these mentors has been huge.

We also take them on field trips. Last summer in Stuttgart, we took the girls to the Dale Bumpers Rice Research Center and the Aqua Culture Center there. These girls were like, “We drive by this all the time and had no clue what goes on in here.” They were able to do some banana DNA extraction and some hands-on plant pathology. I had no clue what a plant pathologist did. These girls were having these hands-on experiences in the labs, and they’re taking these tours and finding out what’s literally down the road from where they live. That was one of the big things that we wanted to do, not only in Little Rock but in our off-sites as well—showcase the community and what’s available right there around them.

You’re really opening the world to these girls.

You don’t have to go to New York or LA or Chicago or Dallas—right here in Stuttgart at the Dale Bumpers Rice Research Center, they’re genetically mapping rice genes. It’s fantastic. And up in Blytheville, where Nucor Steel is one of the big forces, the girls got to meet young women from Nucor and other companies talking about how they’re doing welding or engineering. They’re mid-20s, and they own their own houses, own their own vehicles. They take vacations. It’s just amazing to the girls when they were talking about how much money they make.

Last summer we had a lady reach out to us, volunteering to be a mentor for a couple of our Girls in STEM weeks. She and her husband were stationed at the Air Force Base in Jacksonville, and she told the girls how she helps navigate the big airplanes. Not only that, but the military paid for her education.

The idea is to open these young girls’ thinking. I have to be a doctor or a scientist to have a STEM career, they think. Or, I have to go to a four-year college to have a STEM career. But there are other options. And for a lot of the girls, options are key because they come in thinking they don’t have options. They only know what they’ve seen and what’s involved in their family.

What do you look for in a candidate for your program?

First of all, the Girls in STEM program is completely free. The program weeks, with daily breakfast and lunch provided in our off-site areas, doesn’t cost the girls a dime. That’s very important to both me and the museum—that every girl who applies has the same opportunity.

With our application process, we require two references. One is an academic reference from a classroom teacher, and the other is a community reference. It can be from a sports coach, a chess afterschool coach. It can be from a youth director. It can be from somebody they babysit for just basically attesting to their character.

We’re interested in how well rounded a person is. A lot of their references will say, “She may not be great at math or science, but she’s a fantastic piano player.” Or, “She’s our Girl Scout leader for our younger girls.” We like to see that they’re stepping up, taking the initiative, wanting to be involved.

Here at the museum we have a “tinkering studio.” It’s basically what it sounds like—activities that museum guests basically tinker with. We’ve incorporated some of that into our program the last couple of years. For example, we have a tech take-apart. Best Buy has joined us this coming summer as one of our sponsors. They have a recycling bin of keyboards and old computers and all these different things that they can no longer use, so they said, “What if we save this for you guys, and then we’ll just have a tech take-apart where the girls can just go at it!” So they’ll tear these things apart and find out what’s inside and how it works, and how can they repurpose this for something else. A couple of ladies from the Best Buy Geek Squad are going to be onboard as mentors this coming summer.

It’s things like that. It’s just getting these girls out of this little, small box where they think they have to be good at science. They have to be good at math. They have to be good at coding. The great thing with our robotics team this past season is we had two groups of six to seven girls. When they first started, we told them, “You don’t have to know anything about robotics. We just want you to be willing to learn. We want you to be excited and enthusiastic.” We had a couple of girls who worked on the actual building of the robot. A couple of girls were interested in coding, so they did that. Another couple of girls worked on an engineering notebook outlining the process from beginning to end.

Some of our girls this coming summer will be 11th and 12th graders. One of the things that we’re really looking forward to is when our Girls in STEM graduate high school, keeping track of them. The ultimate goal is for them to return as mentors. We want them to come back and say, “I used to be where you are. I sat in that exact chair in this room.”

You must have many “success stories.”

Yes, we do. Last summer we were in Stuttgart for a week, and we had a great group of girls. After we left and went on and finished up our summer, I got an email from Dr. Anna McClung at the Dale Bumpers Rice Research Center that, after we’d left, two of our young ladies, Abby and Hildonna, had contacted her to job shadow. They’d also contacted Cindy Ledbetter at the Aqua Culture Center.

Why is this important? Not only are these mentors coming in and talking to these girls but they’re also giving them their business cards and saying, “If you need help with the science fair project, if you need help with your research paper, if you want to come job shadow, let us know. That’s what we’re here for. That’s why we do this.” So these two young ladies had not only reached out, they had actually gone on their own and done some job shadowing. A lot of these girls, the older they get, they’re going to be able to use these mentors as references when they’re filling out college applications or job internships. That’s really huge for these girls to have those connections.

I’ve read that one big challenge for Girls in STEM programs is that we tend to “lose girls in middle school”—that is, at a certain age they’re not interested, or maybe not sure of themselves. What have you learned about that?

A lot of girls just don’t know what’s out there, and they’re not encouraged—at home or at school—to find out. If they don’t see it or they don’t know it’s out there, it’s just foreign to them. Also, a lot of the girls say that when they’re interested in being on the robotics team or maybe just something as simple as being on the chess team, they’re intimidated because a lot of those teams are made up of boys.

This is the first year that the museum has sponsored two all-girls robotics teams. A lady came out from Vex Robotics, bringing a bunch of robots with her. She’s like, “Here, girls, play with them.” The girls went, “No! We don’t want to break them.” “They’re plastic,” the Vex lady said. “It’s fine.” I think girls aren’t usually encouraged to not worry about breaking something, to not worry if you don’t succeed, to not worry if you don’t get it right the first time.

But this mentor gave them that encouragement, and the girls loved it. Through that mentor, we were able to learn about a couple of grants, including a Girl Powered grant. We had two teams that competed this past robotics season, and one of them actually made it all the way to the state competition in Russellville. With the robotics team, the girls are like, “We can do this. Us, just girls, we can do this.”

Sounds to me like you’ve found the right niche for yourself!

To me, this kind of program is what my natural enthusiasm has always been for. A lot of people have asked me why I do this for a nonprofit—why I work months on end to create a program. Of course it’s a lot of hard work, and it can be frustrating when some girl who really needs this program can’t get to it because of transportation issues, such as we saw in the Delta.

But the reason I do this program is because I was that girl. I was that girl who needed this program. I came from a family that was very difficult. I needed that guidance. I needed that mentor to take an interest. I needed that one person to say, “I see you. What you have to say is important. What you’re doing, what you’re feeling, is valid.”