By Danielle Nadler
It was long after the dismissal bell had blared, but these students were happy to stay after school. Nine- and 10-year-olds stood proudly next to STEM projects they had spent weeks fine-tuning. This was the moment they’d been waiting for. Parents, teachers, business leaders—even the superintendent—had been invited to come and see just what they’ve been up to for the past 10 weeks.
And the students were ready to show them.
“We’ve been busy,” Liliana, a fifth-grader at Forest Grove Elementary, said with a smile. Then she nodded toward two of her classmates. “This is my team. We worked on this project together, and we’ll present together.”
These students are just a few of the 250 who are enrolled in PROPEL, an after-school program for students from populations under-represented in STEM fields. The program gives them opportunities to try their hand at fun, challenging projects that build their confidence while teaching them to be creative and work well in a team.
Scenes similar to the one at Forest Grove Elementary are playing out in school libraries, classrooms, and auditoriums throughout Loudoun County this month as the PROPEL students present their final projects.
The projects showcase just how creative students got to solve a variety of problems. One group built mini LEGO robots and then programmed them to navigate a maze. Another group built a tower taller than their principal using just spaghetti and painter’s tape.
The trio at Forest Grove Elementary tested how well—or not-so-well—various materials filtrate water, should they ever find themselves in the wild or even in outer space without safe drinking water. Jirro, a fifth-grader, shared his group’s findings. “See, some of these materials make the water too acidic or too alkaline. You want it in the middle. We worked together and found that sand is pretty good at filtrating water.”
How PROPEL got started is another example of just how a spark of an idea, paired with some quality teamwork can prompt meaningful change. It started through a conversation between Odette Scovel, LCPS Science Supervisor, and Dawn Meyer, my predecessor who was, at the time, executive director of the Loudoun Education Foundation. The two had just attended a lecture at HHMI’s Janelia Research Campus about an after-school program in Illinois called Science Club that ushers students into opportunities to explore STEM fields as early as elementary school.
Together, Odette and Dawn set out to create something similar in Loudoun County. Odette worked with her team of educators to create and operate the program, and Dawn formed partnerships to help fund it. Now, PROPEL is at 10 elementary schools and 4 middle schools, where it’s referred to as Level Up. Next year, it’s expected to touch even more schools and students.
Like any good STEM project, all of these partners—LEF, LCPS, and philanthropic organizations—are working as a team to tackle an important long-term goal. Our goal for PROPEL and Level Up is to create a system of supports that diversifies the population of students who pursue rigorous academic pathways, such as AP courses, dual enrollment, or The Academies of Loudoun, and, ultimately, graduate a diverse and talented workforce.
Fifth-grader Alaiyah thinks we’re well on our way: “PROPEL is a club for you to try out new things, so that way when you’re older, you already have this stuff in your brain and then you can share it with people who don’t know it.”
Visit LoudounEducationFoundation.org to learn more about innovative programs such as PROPEL that help students reach their full potential.
Danielle Nadler is executive director of the Loudoun Education Foundation.