Cause: STEM GEMS
We all run into people we know when we’re grocery shopping. It’s expected. If we have the time, we catch up on each other’s lives in a real—not superficial social media—way. It’s par for the produce aisle. But in Alsie Dunbar’s case, there’s a chance she might bump buggies with a mom who stops to thank her for inspiring her daughter.
That happened three years ago when Dunbar ran into Michelle Webster, mother of one of Dunbar’s STEM GEMS participants, who called out her name amidst tears of gratitude, thanking her for helping her daughter develop a love of STEM: science, technology, engineering and math. The student now has ambitions to be an engineer.
“It was a confirmation that I was doing the right thing,” Dunbar says. “I’d had self-doubts. She gave me the push that I needed to go in the right direction, the fuel to continue to move forward.”
The STEM GEMS Mentoring Project, which Dunbar founded in 2013, works in Ascension Parish to mentor young girls identified as high achievers in math and science. The program has mentored over 400 students at Gonzales Primary, Gonzales Middle, Donaldsonville High School and Bright Futures Community Learning Center.
STEM GEMS mentees are encouraged to pursue careers and advanced degrees in STEM fields, where women and minorities are typically underrepresented. The program has spread from Ascension Parish to several surrounding parishes including Iberville, St. Helena, St. Charles, St. James and St. John the Baptist. Dunbar hopes that her volunteer mentoring efforts empower local girls to pursue STEM jobs in the Baton Rouge region.
“We are located at the helm of the chemical industry and refineries,” she says. “It’s to our advantage to capitalize on that.”
Dunbar is a quality assurance manager for Noranda Alumina in Gramercy and has 20 years of experience working in STEM industries. “My purpose is to produce a STEM ecosystem where women and minorities feel like they belong,” she says.
To do so, she introduces young girls to adult women in STEM industries. Data shows that if they can see it, they can imagine themselves doing it. STEM GEMS offers Saturday workshops quarterly, and it annually hosts an event featuring successful female STEM leaders—such as budding astronaut Alyssa Carson, a Baton Rouge native, who is training to go to Mars in 2033.
Other opportunities STEM GEMS offers are more intimate, such as a movie, lunch and learn experience that sponsored 80 girls to see Hidden Figures, then eat and talk with female STEM professionals.
“I put a lot of thought and time into curating an experience that the girls will love and instill that STEM passion into a STEM GEM session,” Dunbar says. “I want them to walk away feeling that they can do anything.”
What do you hope to achieve?
Ultimately, I would like to formulate a STEM initiative that will follow STEM GEMS from kindergarten to high school graduation and beyond, providing internships and career readiness to graduates once they are ready to enter the workforce. I would like for the program to be my legacy and a staple in the Ascension Parish area.
How is your cause making a difference?
To date we have mentored over 400 girls in conjunction with the Ascension Parish School Board, with six participants receiving Student of the Year distinctions.
What is something we don’t know about your cause?
The STEM GEMS Mentoring Project will be awarding its first academic scholarship next spring. This will be an exciting time. I will hopefully be able to select a young female student from my alma mater, East Ascension Senior High.