Venneasha Davis, a sixth grade science and language arts teacher at Woodland Hills Academy in Turtle Creek, started her hectic school year with business as usual—bus duty and new lesson plans. But in a few months, she’s planning a surprise for her students: Aquaponics tanks.

“There will be fish on the bottom and vegetables on the top,” she explained. “Through the nitrate system, the fish will provide nutrients for the plants, and the plants will provide nutrients for the fish.”

Davis clearly loves to learn and teach science. She is also the creator of Sisters e S.T.E.A.M., an afterschool program that engages seventh and eighth grade African-American girls and girls from low-income families in STEAM experiences that connect with their lives and interests.

“I hated school. I wasn’t the straight-A student,” she said. When she was in middle school, her grandmother, a nurse anesthetist, enrolled her in science programs at the University of Pittsburgh. She dissected rats and cats, saw her first cadaver, and witnessed open-heart surgery. As her fascination grew, she took an elementary-education class, where all her interests melded.

I love being able to take everything that I hated about school and flip it—so that students have a curriculum that’s culturally relevant.

“I loved just being able to be creative and take everything that I hated about school and flip it so that students have a curriculum that’s culturally relevant,” she said.

Her belief that science should be a part of her students’ lives and interests is at the core of Sisters e S.T.E.A.M., which is in its third year and meets twice a week. The idea arose when an administrator mentioned new funding opportunities available through Teachers Leading Change, with support from the Allegheny Intermediate Unit. She interviewed middle school girls on their general interests, and on their likes and dislikes about science.

“What surprised me was their disdain for the science curriculum,” she said. “How far removed they were from it. They couldn’t connect the two. They couldn’t understand that science was all around them.”

She wrote the program’s curriculum by matching Next Generation Science Standards with the girls’ interests and added in aspects of the program that focus on confidence building and friendship (“e S.T.E.A.M.” is a play on “esteem.”) The AIU and Teachers Leading Change awarded her the $50,000 to make it happen. The program includes a self-esteem component and activities that focus on friendships among seventh and eighth graders.Screen Shot 2015-09-18 at 9.24.38 AM

Now in its third year, the program has a wait list. On a typical day, the 22 girls who are enrolled might explore principles of physics through dance, take photos with pinhole cameras to reveal the qualities of light, or experiment with the building blocks of chemistry by making soap. The group also creates spoken-word poems about science news like the drought in California.

And the group travels to competitions, where they have been challenged to engineer an environmentally friendly “people mover” or build a catapult for flinging a marshmallow at a bull’s-eye. The competitions, though, tend to be dominated by white male students—which is true of the STEAM fields themselves. Davis said that by ninth grade, research shows, young women are mentally checking out of science and enrolling in classes mostly for the grades. Down the line, women earn fewer degrees in STEM and are drastically underrepresented in STEM fields.

“A lot of times, when we show up, not only are we the only girls, we’re 75 percent African-American. And on top of that we’re not ‘gifted,’ ” she said, adding that the girls walk into competitions saying they are going to lose. “I have tell them: ‘No. You’re just as good as they are. You deserve to be here. You can do this.’ ”

Davis is looking for new grants, as her previous funding covered only two years. But she says her afterschool program has become her “new love” and she will find a way to keep it thriving.

“It’s going to be OK, someone is going to believe in what we’re doing, we’re going to find the funding,” she said. “They’ll believe in what I’m trying to do.”

For more in this series see Leaving the Lab for the Classroom, Teaching Spanish as a Window to the World, and For Pioneering Pittsburgh Educator, It’s Full STEAM Ahead.