USF hopes to fill diversity gap in STEM industry by launching new program to educate children

Programming, IT, and engineering are among the hottest jobs in Tampa Bay, but there’s a diversity gap in who fills those positions. A new program from the University of South Florida's St. Pete campus looks to fill it by educating minority children and girls in local schools about the STEM industry.

Science technology engineering mathematics, or STEM, drives the future.

"Every day, more and more, it becomes more involved in everything we do in our lives. Eventually, it’s just going to be everywhere, so it’s such an important thing for kids to know," said Kacey Grimm, 16, who teaches coding to young children at Code Ninjas in the Westchase area of Tampa.

Grimm said she’s always been interested in math, but she didn’t see herself represented.

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"When I was growing up it was very much a boy thing technology and all. Women are incredibly underrepresented, and it’s definitely a male-dominated field," Grimm said.

STEM professor David Rosengrant said USF St. Pete is laying the new groundwork.

"The problem is that a lot of these individuals in STEM look like me, older white men who are the ones who are in the STEM fields, and this is an issue," said Rosengrant.

He said the university received funding this year to start tackling the problem with the help of a new $75,000 grant from Duke Energy.

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"We’re going to start in Pinellas here with the funding that we have from Duke Energy, and we’re going to be looking at starting with some middle schools," said Rosengrant.

USF is now beginning to plan the southeast’s first MESA program, or Mathematics Engineering Science Achievement, and it’s a STEM pipeline for minority children and girls.

"Our dean was a student in MESA when he was in California, and it had such an impact on him as an African American male growing up being exposed to a career in something that he thought might not ever be possible," said Rosengrant, who will be the program’s coordinator.

Pew Research shows only a quarter of women work in STEM. Black and Hispanic people are also very underrepresented. Black Girls Code Florida helps raise awareness about the gap.

"When you're talking about young minority women being prepared to go into those type of roles. There's just not enough of that," said Korene Stuart, the leader of the Florida Chapter for Black Girls Code in Miami. "It's very important. It's actually vital to all of us that we have a diverse tech workforce, period, for STEM."

The MESA program hopes to fix the issue of preparation by going into the schools that need the exposure the most.

"That’s what the MESA program really does. It gets individuals, women, and minorities who never maybe even thought about STEM as an option for them. But what we do is we show them these are the career options for you in STEM. It’s not just a person in a lab coat, sitting behind a bench, or sitting in a lab. STEM encompasses so much more than that," said Rosengrant. "We help to make sure that they’re on a path, so that in their senior year, they’re taking the courses that they need to take, so they’re ready."

The MESA program will focus on public schools in Tampa Bay, starting in Pinellas County and working out to Hillsborough, Sarasota, Manatee, and Pasco counties. Rosengrant said a big part of the program is bringing in STEM industry workers to talk to underrepresented students about their jobs, then helping them get internships before college.