Girls STEM Lab Welcomed to Laguna with Chamber Virtual Ribbon-Cutting

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Project Scientist community outreach coordinator and site director Kimberly Lewis, her husband John, and their three daughters Everett, 10, Emma, 9, and Eliza, 4, helped cut the ribbon in a Chamber of Commerce virtual grand opening on Tuesday. Photo courtesy of Christina Shook

By Barbara McMurray, Special to the Independent

The Laguna Beach Chamber of Commerce experimented successfully Tuesday with its first virtual ribbon-cutting for the grand opening of Project Scientist, a nonprofit STEM academy for girls ages four to 12. Project Scientist aims to expose girls to a fun learning environment that emphasizes STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) concepts, generating confidence in their ability to succeed in traditionally male-dominated fields.

“We hope to use the space to serve the Orange County community in STEM through after-school and weekend programming, including science and math clubs, tutoring and more,” Sandy Marshall, founder and CEO of Project Scientist said. “We are waiting to hear how the schools will be serving students this fall to better understand the community’s needs.”

As for summer experiences for girls, Marshall noted the Laguna Beach lab will be the hub of a six-week virtual summer camp. Online summer classes will cover robotics and AI, technology for solving problems, health and immunology, water systems and food sustainability, aerospace engineering, and energy and climate change. The organization will deliver kits for each class when students sign up.

For Marshall, encouraging girls to pursue STEM careers is personal.

“After several attempts to complete organic chemistry with a satisfactory grade, I lost my confidence in myself to become a doctor. Research shows that most girls have a perfectionistic and limited-growth mindset when it comes to classes like math and science, unlike most boys,” Marshall said. “At the college level, women are rarely exposed to female professors or mentors in STEM subjects. Project Scientist engages many women in STEM majors and careers so that our girls can see women just like them succeeding.”

Project Scientist reaches out to local companies and universities to engage with women from those sites. For example, in Orange County, the organization works with women from CoreLogic, Capital Group, Google Fiber, Amazon, and UC Irvine. These women will participate in this summer’s virtual camps.

Marshall and her family moved to Laguna Beach from North Carolina in 2015. Her nonprofit started in her North Carolina backyard in 2011 with five girls, including her daughter Ellie, now 13, who has aged out of her mom’s program. Marshall was pregnant with daughter Ivy, now nine. Pre-COVID, Project Scientist had grown to serving more than 2,000 girls on university campuses across the nation each year. Those included classes at California Institute of Technology, USC, Loyola Marymount University, and Queens University of Charlotte in North Carolina, with a planned program launch in Atlanta in 2021 in partnership with Georgia Tech.

With all Project Scientist camps and classes now occurring virtually, girls from all over the United States are signing up. The directors hope their young scientists can be back on college campuses by next summer.

Community outreach coordinator Kimberly Lewis will act as the Laguna Beach lab’s first site director. Live-streaming from the lab on Tuesday before the ribbon was cut, Lewis offered a tour of the 1,300-square-foot space and demonstrated the glowing mini lava lamps her three daughters had made. The new lab is located in what was occupied for decades by Don Romero Photography on Coast Highway at Diamond Street.

Paula Hornbuckle-Arnold, Chamber of Commerce president, said, “As the mother of two girls, I think the super-cool part of Project Scientist is that the program is specifically designed for young girls. It’s great to encourage and educate them as young as possible.”

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