Sabene Uwazie speaks at the STEM program.

Every stem can lead to branches. For 17-year-old Sabene Uwazie, the branches of her stem, or rather STEM, stand for science (S), technology (T), engineering (E), and math (M).

Sabene, who starts her senior year at Evanston Township High School on Monday, recently took part in the week-long Exelon Foundation Stem Leadership Academy that introduces girls to what is still a predominantly male-oriented field.

“I wanted to get a better view on STEM opportunities,” Sabene said of the program, where local high school girls spend a week at the campus of the Illinois Institute of Technology. They heard from women in various aspects of STEM careers and put together a “challenge project” that could have real-world application in fields such as alternative energy and recycling.

Maya Garcia directs the program, as manager of community engagement for both Exelon (parent company of ComEd) and the Exelon Foundation (which has put on the academy since 2018).

An engineer herself, Garcia says STEM is “not an easy path,” and is particularly challenging for girls because “of the big gender gap which exists.”

Some of the participants come in unsure of themselves, but not Sabene, who said she’s been interested in STEM (even if she didn’t know the term) “since her early years.”

Sabene Uwazie.

Starting out with “robotics and legos,” Sabene says she progressed into coding and now sees herself pursuing STEM, most likely engineering, in college.

Her older sister Adeze was an Academy participant last summer, so Sabene had some idea of how the program worked.

Still, showing up and meeting 59 other girls from all around the area, and then having to come up with a project together quickly is not easy.

“It teaches teamwork and collaboration,” Garcia explained. “These girls did not know each other on Sunday, and end up turning out some great ideas in a week’s time.”

Sabene’s sub-group’s challenge was to “find a way to better the environment” on a college campus.

Not only did the high schoolers do that, with an idea about composting, but they also put together a business plan. Their idea is to sell materials composted on campus to local landscaping companies, as well as providing the materials to community gardens and the university.

They were also taught how to make an “elevator pitch,” to explain their proposal succinctly.

There is also help with preparing resumes for college. Sabene plans to write about her STEM Academy experiences in her application essays.

The Academy has sessions in three of Exelon’s service areas, Chicago, Baltimore-Washington and Philadelphia. Each program admits 60 girls. There is also a scholarship competition for the students once they finish. Some can also get internships with the company.

“We’re making a committment to these young women,” Garcia said.

Exposure to STEM options can be particularly significant for young women of color.

Garcia was the only Black female graduate of her college engineering program 20 years ago. Finding female mentors and colleagues was not easy.

So even a one-week program like the Academy, Garcia explained, can turn out to be “a life-changing opportunity.”

Just ask Sabene. She said the program helped convince her that “I actually have a place in STEM, and it’s not just a broad dream that’s unattainable.”

Jeff Hirsh joined the Evanston Now reporting team in 2020 after a 40-year award-winning career as a broadcast journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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