The Future Women of STEM: A Chat w/ Scientific Adventures for Girls Co-Founder, Courtenay Carr Heuer
I’ve always been passionate about promoting young girls’ involvement in STEM. Despite women accounting for 60% of college graduates, they only occupy 27% of STEM jobs today. What factors contribute to this dropoff?
When I contemplate this question, I always hone in on early childhood influences. Small influences during adolescence are magnified throughout our lives— they shape our personalities, values, and goals. Our beliefs about what we can and cannot achieve are forged early on. Nowadays, children must decide as early as 16 years old what academic discipline to pursue for the rest of their lives. That’s why I believe it’s so important to expose young girls to a wide array of academic disciplines including STEM.
To learn more about childhood education in STEM, I caught up with Courtenay Carr Heuer, Co-Founder of Scientific Adventures for Girls (SAFG). SAFG is a nonprofit organization that promotes young girls’ interest in STEM through its afterschool STEM classes. SAFG currently teaches an academic year-long program at 18 East Bay elementary schools. The classes are free of charge and 90% of SAFG students are girls of color.
Courtenay founded SAFG in 2014 with her co-founder, Tiffany Sprague. Prior to SAFG, Courtenay worked in US-Russia economic trade diplomacy at Center for Citizen Initiatives, JBC International, and California Council for International Trade.
Like you, I am also interested in international business. Before jumping into SAFG, can you tell me about your early childhood influences and why you decided to pursue US-Russia international relations?
Growing up, my dad worked for the airlines, so my family was constantly traveling. Travel and enthusiasm for new places became a central part of my life. In college, I took a class at UC Berkeley about Russia and became fascinated with the region. The Berlin Wall came in 1989, and shortly after, I had the opportunity to take a month-long trip to Russia. While there, I fell in love with the country and the people. I decided I wanted to build a career around Russia and international relations.
I studied Russian language at the Foreign Language Institute in Moscow and received a Master’s degree in Commercial Diplomacy from the Monterey Institute. After graduating, I worked as a Trade Specialist in Washington DC representing American businesses in the former Soviet Union. After moving back to the Bay Area, I worked at a nonprofit called Center for Citizen Initiatives where I provided economic advisory to Russian small businesses.
What inspired you to start Scientific Adventures for Girls?
One of the main inspirations for founding SAFG was my daughter. My daughter showed natural creativity from a young age and would find any scraps around the house to start building things. She always said that she wanted to be an inventor. To foster this creativity, I would take her to science programs, but noticed she was always one of the only girls in the class. I wondered, why are more girls not enrolled in these classes?
I started to think about how I could engage more girls in STEM and what program I could design to fulfill this need. Children are naturally curious, and when they’re young, everything seems fun and exciting. For that reason, my co-founder Tiffany and I designed a program for elementary school children. Studies show that interest in STEM starts in elementary school and continues throughout middle and high school. So it’s never too early to engage with STEM. In 2014, we founded Scientific Adventures for Girls.
We started with one after school program at a small community space near Peralta Elementary School. Since then, we’ve grown to 14 schools and are looking to add 4 more schools in January 2022.
In addition to teaching fun science concepts, what values do you hope to instill in young girls?
We take a holistic approach to these young girls’ education. We aim to build each girl’s confidence, problem solving, collaboration, and perseverance. At its core, we want the girls to walk away with the feeling of “I can do this”. Our role model program has been very influential in achieving this goal. We bring in female STEM role models from engineering, biology, chemistry, and other fields to speak to our girls. We want the girls to see women who look like them excelling in STEM careers to reinforce this idea that they too can succeed.
How have you seen SAFG impact the academic decisions of program graduates?
Our oldest cohort of students is in high school now. A student from the very first cohort, Briana, is now a junior. She is heavily involved in her robotics club and even competed in a national competition! We are proud that SAFG could give her an early exposure to STEM and cultivate this passion.
We hear other fun stories from parents all the time. For example, one parent told us that after her daughters enrolled in our course, they got excited to dress up as a scientist and an inventor for Halloween instead of princesses. This parent was impressed by the strong impact SAFG had on her daughters in such a short amount of time.
Play is such an important part of childhood development. What toys do you think are most effective at promoting creativity?
I think legos, magna-tiles, and any type of blocks are great. I find that toys that are open-ended tend to promote even more creativity. Rather than playing with pre-set lego boxes where you build something according to instructions, my kids played with our big box random legos, using their imaginations to build new things.
What other programs are part of SAFG?
We host a number of co-ed events for the broader East Bay community. A big part of what we do at SAFG is engaging families and caregivers. For that reason, we host a monthly Family STEAM night where we partner with Lawrence Hall of Science and other local institutions to engage parents and students in fun hands-on activities. Other community events we host are STEM summer camps and events at local libraries.
What are the sources of your funding today?
Today, we receive about 60% of our funding from grants, 30% from school districts and afterschool administrations, and 10% from individual donors. Social media has been our best way of reaching individual donors, so we stay very active on these sites.
December is the strongest month for donations across nonprofits and charities. Why is it important for donors to donate to SAFG now?
Women’s underrepresentation in STEM was highlighted during COVID-19. Women were disproportionately affected by COVID-19 layoffs in large part due to their absence from STEM. STEM jobs tend to be more resistant to layoffs because they require higher specialization and usually can be done remotely. To improve women’s future economic stability, investing in early childhood STEM programs is more important now than ever.
Founder Fun Facts
Linda Kekelis, the founder of Techbridge Girls, is a female STEM leader who inspires Courtenay.
Finland/Scandinavia is an upcoming travel destination Courtenay plans to visit.
Love and Ruin by Paula McLain is a book Courtenay recently read and recommends. It details the life of Ernest Hemingway’s wife, Martha Gellhorn: a trailblazer who built her career as a war correspondent journalist during the 1930s.
About the Author
Bonnie Young runs the Amplified blog. She shares her insights on market trends from the US to Asia and interviews founders shaking up the tech scene. For new articles directly in your inbox, subscribe to the Amplified newsletter.
Photos courtesy of Scientific Adventures for Girls