STEM education for girls supercharged by $1M pledge to Project Scientist

Laguna Beach resident Sandy Marshall, founder and CEO of Project Scientist, enjoys an office balcony overlooking Cliff Drive. Photo By Daniel Langhorne

Sandy Marshall, founded Project Scientist in 2011 out of her guest house in Charlotte, North Carolina, partly out of exasperation with the lack of affordable, summer programs for her daughter to explore her interest in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.

The former executive director of the NASCAR Foundation rallied fellow parents to pool their resources and hire teachers from their Montesorri School to build a program from scratch in her backyard.

“As young as four, five, and six, boys and girls are deciding that math and science are for boys. My daughter was four at the time and I was determined for that not to happen to her,” Marshall said. “And I also had a need as a working mom who travels 75%, my husband also travels, to have full-time care in the summer.”

Project Scientist has subsequently expanded into socio-economically disadvantaged communities in North Carolina, Minnesota, and California with a laser focus to inspire girls to pursue advanced degrees and careers in science-related fields. Hands-on activities in dissection, coding, robotics, and building help spark their curiosity.

Now headquartered in a colorful office across the street from Laguna Art Museum, the nonprofit’s goal is to serve 20,000 girls by the end of this summer.

Project Scientist was recently awarded a $1 million grant over three years from Trane Technologies to help launch a new virtual program that empowers girls ages 13 to 15 to pursue STEM career pathways through mentorship with professionals in science-related industries.

An international supplier of heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems, Trane will also help Project Scientist launch its first initiative abroad, a virtual STEM program for girls ages four to 12 from underserved communities in Monterrey, Mexico. This project is slated to roll out this fall. Monterrey was chosen because its a manufacturing hub for Trane and a sizable number of other international companies.

“It’s a city with a population of high need and high wealth and that high need is just not getting served,” Marshall said. The other piece for that in the U.S. typically 25% of STEM career positions are held by women. In Mexico, that’s 8%. So there’s a real need to work with those girls at a young age and give them that vision for themselves and meet other women in Mexico who are working in STEM.”

Marshall anticipates that Mexican women working in STEM-related careers will also be relatable for U.S.-based programs serving families who speak Spanish at home.

Steve Hagood, senior vice president and chief information officer for Trane Technologies, also serves as chair of Project Scientist’s Board of Directors.

“Children exposed to STEM education are not just learning new skills in problem-solving, computational thinking and collaboration—they are absorbing the signals they see,” Hagood said in a press release. “That’s why just a glimpse of people, especially women, in STEM careers can unlock new dreams for what they can be.”

A student participates in a Project Scientist virtual summer club in 2021. Photo courtesy of Project Scientist

Project Scientist has seen success in reaching that goal partly because over 400 female professionals, called STEM Superstars, have annually volunteered to educate girls about their careers. More than 50 companies have also opened their doors as field expeditions for girls with Project Scientist—since the outbreak of COVID-19 these visits have been limited to virtual attendance.

It also employs a number of college interns and credentialed teachers who guide future scientists through hybrid lessons. STEM kits filled with every material they’ll need, down to pencils and construction paper, are shipped to students’ homes where they watch live classes on a device. Those students who don’t own a device are provided rented iPads and Wifi access during the program.

Miley Palacios, 14, attended Protect Scientist for four years on a full scholarship while she was a student at the dual language immersion-based El Sol Academy in Santa Ana. At 11 years old, Miley realized she wanted to become a medical doctor by attending the health science week by attending the Summer STEAM Academy.

“I was able to go on an expedition, and women there taught us about medicine and how heart valves work. STEM Superstars are my role models, and I know I want to be one when I grow up, too,” Miley said in a prepared statement.

Miley is now a full scholarship student at Tarbut V’Torah Community Day School in Irvine.

When schools closed their campuses to students in the pandemic’s early months leaving many girls were hit particularly hard by the isolation of being physically away from their friends and teachers, Marshall said. Project Scientist quickly pivoted to hybrid classes that not only keep them engaged academically but also help them express and cope with their emotions. From March to October 2020, mental health-related emergency department visits increased 24% for children ages 5 to 11, according to CDC data.

Now every Project Scientist class begins with yoga and mindfulness activities to support girls’ social-emotional needs. Marshall didn’t plan for her nonprofit to take on this dual role of caring equally about wellness as much as academic success but is proud of her staff for rising to the challenge.

“It was a bit overwhelming. As a social entrepreneur, you don’t always stop and take that in.” Marshall said.

Ultimately, Marshall’s design isn’t to turn every girl into a straight-A student.

“We’re trying to build up that confidence that they have so when they go back to the classroom and they encounter some stereotyping and self-doubt that they’re strong enough to push through that,” Marshall said.

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  1. What a worthwhile endeavor. Congratulations to Sandy and Project Scientist! Well deserved. So pleased that she chose Laguna Beach for the home of her nonprofit and her family. Proud to have ‘em.


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