Diversity & Inclusion
Career development / DEI / Education / STEM

Philly STEM education program eyes national expansion as it celebrates 10 years

FirstHand, run by the University City Science Center, works with middle and high school students to offer hands-on learning in tech.

Former FirstHand students. (Courtesy the University City Science Center)

When Morgan Eason joined the FirstHand program her sophomore year of high school, she had no idea it would lead to starting her own business and becoming a mentor. 

Run by the University City Science Center, the STEM education program is celebrating 10 years this spring. Having established their model and curriculum, FirstHand leaders are looking forward to a second decade filled with even more collaboration with local schools, companies and nonprofits. 

The overarching goal: Make a positive impact on Philadelphia students. 

“It made me realize that I can go into any room and be who I am — and it’s okay and it’s enough,” Eason told Technical.ly. “I made it here whether the rooms are familiar or not.” 

As she continued her high school education, Eason became a peer mentor to younger students and participated in an entrepreneurship program where she learned how to grow her hair braiding business

What stands out most? The mentorship and guidance she received from the staff at the Science Center. 

From a small pilot to neighborhood-wide program

FirstHand started in the spring of 2014, when the Science Center ran its first 10-week middle school program. 

Before that initiative, West Philly students only visited the big shiny buildings they walked past every day for field trips or one off programming, said Maya Heiland, senior director of STEM Education Initiatives at the Science Center. 

Now FirstHand regularly welcomes neighborhood youth via programs with 10 middle school partners, most in West Philadelphia. 

Cohorts of 12 to 14 students from each school come to the Science Center with their teacher once a week to do hands-on STEM activities. The curriculum ranges from genetics to heredity, microscopy, gel electrophoresis, learning about the microbiome and much more. Each cohort is partnered with a local company to provide career exposure, lab tours and other hands-on activities. 

“We are really that in-between space that builds confidence and STEM identity,” Heiland said. “So when they get to the lab, they are asking better questions. They recognize materials and content in a different way.” 

Two kids using pipettes.

FirstHand students learning to use lab equipment. (Courtesy UC Science Center)

Out of a desire to provide more opportunities for FirstHand alumni, the Science Center in 2016 launched a high school program, too. It encourages students to build their professional networks and engage with the companies they’re working with. Participation includes a stipend, because a lot happens outside of school hours, per Heiland. 

Science Center teams work with local companies and professionals to design and deliver “sprints” for the highschoolers, including programs in cybersecurity, entrepreneurship, biotech and data analysis. The middle school curriculum is biology and biotech heavy because of how many life science companies are involved, Heiland said. 

Across all levels, she said, curriculum choices are driven by the companies and industries in Philadelphia and the professionals who are willing to teach and mentor students. 

Spreading the STEM love around the country

When FirstHand started, leaders were trying to figure out what its programming should be and if it was actually needed in the community. Those days are over, according to Heiland — and the new focus is on building for the future.

“We’ve gotten past the identity crisis and we’re like, ‘Yeah, this is needed,’” Heiland said. “We are making an impact. We have strong relationships. And so now we’re starting to build more collaborative partnerships with other programs.” 

As the program grows, Heiland hopes alumni continue to come back and share how FirstHand impacted their careers. She and her team are also working on how to best support students after high school and keep up with them in college and beyond. 

Going forward, the Science Center aims to work with similar institutions in other parts of the country, sharing experiences and programming to spread the STEM love. 

“I want to see how FirstHand, the model, works in Charlotte, works in San Diego,” Heiland said. “I want to see how much the culture can drive the partnerships and the curriculum.” 

Part of that culture involves encouraging industry professionals to participate and pass down their knowledge, taking an active role in building their industry’s workforce pipeline, she said. 

Eason is currently heading into her junior year at Cheyney University, where she’s studying psychology. She’s joined a sorority and is generally very involved on campus. She’s also still running her hair braiding business.

“I want to invest in people the same way FirstHand did to me,” Eason said. “[The program] gives me an opportunity to do it now …I don’t have to wait until I’m 30 to pour into people that look like me or give people an opportunity to do something with themselves.”

Sarah Huffman is a 2022-2024 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Lenfest Institute for Journalism.
Companies: University City Science Center
Series: Future of Work Month

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