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How project-based learning and STEAM curriculum are giving young women in El Paso the confidence and skills necessary to excel in college and career.


How do you keep the “sister” in “sisterhood?” Dr. Cynthia Ontiveros and her staff believe it’s through Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics (STEAM). Together, they are working toward an answer at the Young Women’s STEAM Research and Preparatory Academy (YWA) in El Paso, Texas.

Ontiveros and her staff at the YWA were troubled by the sheer lack of women represented in STEAMoriented careers. “Just looking at local and national trends, including the number of women who are represented in STEAM careers, that number is dismal, especially minority representation,” Ontiveros said. One reason Ontiveros thinks the numbers are so low is that many young girls don’t learn how to develop the emotional skills necessary to work in STEAM fields long-term.

Project-based learning presented just the sort of solution Ontiveros was looking for to this complex problem. Teaching with a curriculum that balances both team-building and problem-solving allows the YWA students to grow both academically and emotionally. We know that girls everywhere are smart and can make it into programs, but the issue is their resilience to stay, to pursue higher-level positions. We have made those challenges very clear here and what it means to stick it through,” Ontiveros said.

From the culture of the school to the projects completed by students, being “real” rings true at YWA. Ontiveros and her staff want their students to see themselves as future scientists, artists, or engineers. When selecting guests to invite to the school, they select people who the students can relate to and who have a similar story to the young women listening in the classroom. “We wanted our campus to have a culture where our students were a sisterhood,” Ontiveros said. “We want every student to feel safe. We want every student to feel as though we honor their culture, their background, their experiences.” With NTN as a partner, Dr. Ontiveros has access to resources and relationships within the NTN network that are constantly giving her new ideas for how to keep improving her school’s curriculum.

“A STEAM career is about tinkering. [ … ] It’s about creating their own solutions and trying to figure things out. I knew that PBL was an excellent support for what we wanted to do for our young women to meet their needs,” Ontiveros said. Through high-quality practices, a unified mission, and a successful partnership with NTN, Ontiveros and her staff are in the midst of building a powerful sisterhood.