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Chemours seeks to expand STEM education footprint in Wilmington

Chemours ChemFEST STEM
Tom Byrne
Delaware Public Media

STEM education receives a lot of attention, especially efforts to teach girls and minorities - two groups underrepresented in many STEM fields.

Those efforts often center on high school and college students, but this week Chemours launched a new initiative focused on middle school at a pair of Wilmington schools serving those underrepresented groups.

This week, contributor Larry Nagengast takes a closer look at this initiative and what it means for those schools.

Delaware Public Media's Tom Byrne and contributor Larry Nagengast discuss the launch of Chemours ChemFEST program in Wilmington.

Peggy Prevoznik Heins called it “our largest grant ever.” Aaron Bass echoed her assessment.

Heins and Bass, the leaders of two middle schools that serve often overlooked students in under-resourced communities, were beaming this week, thanks to major grants announced by Chemours, the Wilmington-based chemical company as it launched a global program to fund initiatives in science and technology education.

Chemours Chemfest annoucement
Tom Byrne
Delaware Public Media
Serviam Girls Academy President Peggy Prevoznik Heins receives a check for ChemFes(T2) investment from Chemours CEO Mark Newman.

Heins is president of Serviam Girls Academy, a tuition-free private school which moved last year into rented space at Grace Methodist Church, five blocks away from Chemours’ headquarters in the DuPont Building on Rodney Square in downtown Wilmington. Chemours is awarding Serviam $250,000, to be used over the next four years to underwrite a capstone science program for the school’s eighth-grade students. In addition to supplies and equipment for Serviam’s science lab, Chemours will provide mentors to support the students as they work on their yearlong projects.

For Bass’s Eastside Charter School, the award from Chemours is much greater -- $4 million to go toward construction of a $13 million science center, to be named the Chemours Eastside STEM Discovery Hub, that will be built on the parking lot at the school, a block off North East Boulevard just north of the Riverside community, where a massive redevelopment project is now underway.

EastSide Charter location for STEM hub facility
Larry Nagengast
Delaware Public Media
This parking lot at EastSide Charter School is where the planned $13 million Chemours Eastside STEM Discovery Hub is expected to be built

“This will have tremendous impact, on Wilmington’s East Side and in the entire city,” says Bass, the school’s CEO.

The project is still in the design phase, and the campaign to raise the $9 million needed to cover remaining construction costs has not begun, but Bass envisions a facility that will include science classrooms and labs, a maker space, demonstration spaces and meeting rooms that will be available for community activities.

The Chemours awards to Serviam and Eastside launched a corporate school partnership initiative dubbed ChemFEST, for Chemours Future of Engineering, Science, Trades and Technology, that will focus on exposing students in under-resourced middle schools in areas where Chemours has facilities to strong programming in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and math. ChemFEST is part of a larger $50 million corporate effort to create and sustain “vibrant communities” in areas where Chemours operates, President and CEO Mark Newman said while announcing the awards Monday under a tent in Rodney Square, a few hundred feet from the company’s headquarters.

The goal is to “create a pipeline, from middle school to college” to encourage students to choose STEM careers, said Alvenia Scarborough, Chemours’ senior vice president for corporate communications. “We’re starting in Wilmington, the place we call home.”

"Over the next 20 years, there will be more than 800,000, good paying jobs in STEM fields [in the United States] —and right now, there are not enough STEM professionals prepared to step into these jobs. This is a major problem that we are taking head on. We want students from our communities ready for these opportunities,” Newman said.

Chemours CEO Mark Newman discusses the philosophy behind the company's investment in ChemFEST

The Eastside and Serviam partnerships, and those to be started in the future at other locations, will be customized to meet specific needs at the schools, he said.

The ChemFEST initiative represents in some respects an extension of the legacy of the DuPont Co., from which Chemours was spun off in 2015. At Monday’s media event, New Castle County Executive Matt Meyer noted that five or so years ago, as DuPont was merging with Dow Chemical and spinning off various pieces of its operations, “there as a great fear” that DuPont’s reputation “of going big” in community support, notably in education “would go away.”

Chemours’s support of Serviam and Eastside bears some resemblance to FAME Inc., the Forum to Advance Minorities in Engineering, a program created by DuPont in 1976 – and still going strong – to address the lack of women, African American, Hispanic and Native American engineers and scientists.

Monday’s grants come on the heels of two recent Chemours’ moves to improve access to STEM education for underrepresented youth. In 2018, Chemours launched the Future of Chemistry Scholarship program in partnership with Wilmington Mayor Mike Purzycki, the city and the HBCU Week Foundation. Last year Chemours partnered with the HBCU Week Foundation, the American Chemistry Council, and the American Institute of Chemical Engineers as the lead sponsor of The Future of STEM Scholars Initiative.

Jacqueline Means, the University of Delaware student who grew up in Wilmington’s Southbridge neighborhood and was dubbed “the STEM Queen” after founding the Wilmington Urban STEM Initiative, attended Monday’s event. She said the Chemours initiative, and others like it, “will show children in Wilmington that there’s another option” to overcome their environment and achieve success in education and their careers.

The grants to Eastside and Serviam are represent major expansions to existing partnerships with Chemours.

The Eastside Story

The current partnership with Eastside, Delaware’s second-oldest public charter school, has Chemours providing support through field trips, hands-on learning and exposure to STEM experts as part of the school’s lecture program.

“When we found out that Eastside was going to receive this investment, there were tears in our eyes,” Bass said. “Eastside is less than two miles from here [Chemours headquarters], but for job opportunities in Wilmington and Delaware, we are light years away.”

ChemFEST_ABass EastSide 2.jpg
EastSide Charter School CEO Aaron Bass

Eastside wants “involvement in every single aspect of STEM, so students can become familiar with all of it,” Bass says.

While the classrooms, labs and maker space planned for the Discovery Hub will have a direct benefit to Eastside students, the human commitment Chemours is making is equally important, Bass says. “A building itself is not a solution. The mentorship is more important.”

Bass anticipates the hub will have an equally significant impact on the northeast Wilmington neighborhood where the school is located.

The Wilmington Institute Library is planning to offer programming at the center, Bass says.

Also, Chemours will be able to use the hub for job training and recruitment during after-school hours, and similar arrangements would be possible for other donors to the construction fund, he says.

Bass points out that the hub will become an important component in the overall redevelopment of the Riverside community east of North East Boulevard and just south of the school. The REACH Riverside project will eventually replace a public housing project with more than 600 units of new townhomes and apartments, some subsidized and some to be rented at market rates. Construction of a new and expanded building for the Kingswood Community Center, the neighborhood’s centerpiece for 75 years, is also part of the plan.

EastSide Charter School CEO Aaron Bass discusses Chemours commitment to bolster STEM education in middle schools

Bass, in his references to the Wilmington Library and Kingswood, envisions the Discovery Hub as a venue that can function as both an educational and community center.

When the Discovery Hub is completed, Eastside will be able to increase its enrollment by up to 200 students, Bass says. The school currently serves about 500 students in kindergarten through eighth grade.

Before increasing enrollment, the school will have to request a “major modification” of its charter from the state Department of Education. Since the new building won’t be ready for occupancy until the second half of 2023, if there are no construction delays, the charter modification request won’t be filed until late next year, Bass says.

“Right now, we’re 100 percent focused on this investment,” he says.

Serviam: ‘They know we’re their neighbor’

Serviam, which opened in 2008, was founded by a group with close connections to Ursuline Academy, the private Catholic girls school in Wilmington. Enrollment is limited to girls who qualify for the federal free or reduced-price school lunch program. The school charges no tuition, but families do pay a $500 activities fee each year.

Through the 2019-20 school year, Serviam was housed in the former Holy Spirit School, off New Castle Avenue in the shadows of the Delaware Memorial Bridge.

Moving last year, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, to space in the Grace Methodist Church complex at Ninth and Washington streets in downtown Wilmington, gave the school much more visibility, Heins said.

Serviam Girls Academy
Chemours employees work with students at Serviam Girls Academy as part of the ChemFEST(2) program

And that visibility was a key to developing a relationship with Chemours, she said.

Efforts to attract support from the company, starting in 2018, didn’t draw much attention, she said, but that started to change after the move.

“We’re right there. They see us,” she said of the location within walking distance of Chemours’ headquarters.

Chemours started working with Serviam last year – helping to equip the science lab, mentoring the school’s science teacher and sending employees over to help the students with their lab experiments.

Serviam students now wear lab coats bearing the Chemours logo and goggles donated by the company.

The award to support the school’s science capstone project is more than Serviam ever expected. “The beauty of it for us is the long-term commitment,” Heins said.

The details of how the collaboration for the capstone project would work have not been resolved, said Altina Herbert, Serviam’s principal. “We’re still putting together the pieces,” she said.

Serviam has been working on designing a capstone project plan for several years. Starting next year, it will have the resources to build it into the curriculum, Heins said.

Serviam Girls Academy President Peggy Prevoznik Heins discusses what Chemours support means to her school

The idea, she said, “is to get the [eighth-grade] students to investigate some kind of problem – maybe it’s clean water, or cleaner streets, and figure out the technology needed to make the situation better.” She envisions students working in pairs on these projects. With an enrollment of about 60 students – no more than 18 per grade level – that would require seven to nine Chemours scientists to serve as mentors throughout the school year.

Hope for the future

ChemFEST, Chemours’ Scarborough says, will not only deepen the company’s connections with the communities it serves but will also “nurture the next generation of STEM professionals from these same areas.”

“Our girls, like most children, love science. This helps make it happen,” Heins says. “It’s all about access, tapping into their potential.”

“Who wouldn’t want to help serve young minds who might be interested in finding a cure for cancer or a new source for renewable energy?” Bass says. “We’ve got sixth graders who want to learn, but right now don’t have access to all the resources they need…. [The grant means that] Riverside will forever change because we started off with such a young group of people.”

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Larry Nagengast, a contributor to Delaware First Media since 2011, has been writing and editing news stories in Delaware for more than five decades.