April 1, 2021

Cheyney Alumna Turns Love Of STEM Into Advocacy For Education

Cheyney Alumna Turns Love Of STEM Into Advocacy For Education

Cheyney University alumna Renee Harris turned her love of science and technology into a STEM-focused pre-school.

The STEM Prep Academy (SPA), located in Philadelphia’s Fishtown section, is Harris’ effort to instill a love of the sciences in pre-school children and influence the education performance of the next generation.

“My interest in exposing children to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) came from my own love of science as a child, but I didn’t have the exposure,” Harris said. “I didn’t know about the different STEM careers that are out there. I opened SPA to bridge the gap of STEM achievement early on. I started Esteem Girls because of the lack of women in STEM fields.”

Harris was raised in West Philadelphia and is the first in her family to graduate from high school and college. She attended the University of Maryland Eastern Shore and majored in biology. She returned to the Philadelphia area and attended Montgomery County Community College, majoring in biology and participated in the STEM scholars program funded by the National Science Foundation. She worked in the pharmaceutical industry while obtaining a bachelor’s degree at Cheyney University full time. She graduated in 2015.

According to Harris, attending Cheyney University as a Keystone Honors student was a great experience. She graduated cum laude while working full time and raising a child. With the help of Dr. Tara Kent, the Keystone Honors dean at that time, and Dr. Lynn Green, professor of sociology, she made some amazing connections and had one-of-a-kind experiences.

“Dr. Kent and Dr. Green broadened my perspective when it came to sociology and making an impact in the community,” said Harris. “I had a scientific view in dealing with problems. Due to my sociology studies, I was able to research and apply a lot of data that established my career in providing STEM education.”

Harris started the non-profit STEM organization in 2016, Esteem Girls Inc, with the mission to help bridge the gap of STEM achievement by educating girls in grades 3 to 8th grade. Programs are hands-on interactive and explorative programs to increase girls’ enrollment in STEM fields. After realizing the great demand and success with Esteem Girls Inc., she started SPA in January 2021 and opened the school for boys and girls in preschool.

“It was always my goal to open a STEM-based pre-school once I got my non-profit launched and once I had enough support,” said Harris. “I started looking at different locations. The best opportunity was in Fishtown. I plan to expand SPA, adding kindergarten.”

“There is significant research showing a gender gap in STEM careers along with minimal representation of Black and Hispanic professionals in STEM fields,” said Harris.

According to a US Census Bureau report, women make up only 27% of all U.S. workers in STEM occupations. A 2018 Pew Research Center report further shows Black and Hispanic workers continue to be underrepresented in the STEM workforce. Blacks make up 11% of the U.S. workforce overall but represent 9% of STEM workers, while Hispanics comprise 16% of the U.S. workforce but only 7% of all STEM workers. And among employed adults with a bachelor’s degree or higher, Blacks are just 7% and Hispanics are 6% of the STEM workforce.

“My interest in starting the non-profit is owed to my diverse academic background in sociology and biology,” said Harris. “Learning biology gave me the skills of observation and experimentation. Studying sociology sharpened my skills to do research and collect data.”

According to Harris, the support she received from Cheyney staff and professors led to her starting her STEM non-profit and school. She also recommends every student explore the Keystone Honors program.

“Dr. Kent was always supportive and was there for me unconditionally during my studies,” said Harris. “She assisted me in narrowing my career focus, as I felt pulled in different directions. Dr. Green was extremely helpful in directing me how to focus on my career goals.”

Dr. Lynn Green professor of sociology at Cheyney said Renee Harris impressed her from the time of their first meeting in 2012.

“She was a focused, motivated and talented student with a clear sense of direction to a career she would be passionate about,” Dr. Green said. “In our Senior Seminar, she played a pivotal role as a leader in the classroom. I am in no way surprised to see the remarkable work she is doing for young women and I am sure she will continue to use her talent and energy to improve our communities and contribute to a more just society.”