How Verizon Reaches #GirlsInSTEM in Rural Communities: A Q&A w/ Justina Nixon-Saintil

by STEMconnector

This summer, Verizon Innovative Learning launches its first program addressing the need for more girls, especially those in rural America, to be prepared for the science, technology, engineering and math careers of the future.

In partnership with the National Association for Community College Entrepreneurship (NACCE), more than 300 girls across three states will learn the fundamentals of augmented reality, coding, 3D design, entrepreneurship and design thinking principles.

Following the summer program, students will continue to participate in monthly courses both in-person and virtually, to build upon what they’ve learned and complete their final augmented reality products.

Through this experience, Verizon Innovative Learning hopes to give the participating girls a glimpse into a world that they may have never thought of before. To get a better idea of what’s happening on the ground, we asked Justina Nixon-Saintil, Director of Education for the Verizon Foundation. “Through this new program, we are thrilled to offer the latest cutting-edge technology for our Verizon Innovative Learning students to engage with, that can ignite their entrepreneurial mindsets.”

STEMconnector: Why did Verizon launch this program?

Justina Nixon-Saintil: For young girls in rural areas, there is often a lack of opportunity to explore and engage in STEM in a meaningful way. They may not be exposed to parents, mentors, or family members who are working in STEM careers. Or they may not have access to modern or cutting edge technology.

The types of skills that are needed for jobs of the future are inherent in engineering and computer science education: creativity, critical thinking, complex problem solving, collaborating with others, using next gen technologies and more.

This type of opportunity gives the girls and their families hope that they will be equipped for the jobs of the future. It gives them skills that they can build on, that are in demand in the workforce, and it also gives them the self-confidence and belief that they can compete with peers in other areas of the country who have had access to these types of opportunities.

That’s why we launched this program – to empower young girls in rural areas to thrive as the next generation of problem solvers and creators.

SC: What specifically do girls learn in this program?

JNS: What’s unique about this program is that it allows the girls to become creators through experiment and design. The girls use virtual reality apps and headsets to create brand new experiences; Autocad and 3D printers to create products; and they learn to develop apps that align with the U.N. Sustainability Development Goals. So far, girls in the program have created apps to help end poverty, move more girls into STEM fields, and protect the planet.

SC: What are some of the things the girls will get to experience during the program?

JNS: In addition to learning 3D design, coding, and VR/AR, students will engage with women mentors from Verizon, participate in both virtual field trips (powered by VR technology) and in-person field trips, and will have exclusive opportunities, like access to NASA astronauts and professional women in a wide variety of STEM fields.

SC: Who teaches the classes?

JNS: Through NACCE, Verizon has partnered with five participating community colleges: Western Iowa Tech Community College, Northern Iowa Area Community College, Patrick Henry Community College, Paul D. Camp Community College, and Roane State Community College. Each campus has brought in a number of subject matter experts to work with the young women, from middle school STEM teachers, to associate professors, to graduate students, and career professionals who have a passion for STEM.

SC: How can our readers get more involved in this program?

JNS: Readers can visit to learn more about STEM education; to read inspiring stories of kids and leaders in STEM fields, and to try hands-on STEM activities designed for kids of all ages.

SC: Why is it important for young girls to have exposure to STEM education?

JNS: There is still a significant gap in the number of women who are pursuing engineering and computer science fields versus their male peers. Over 20 years ago, I graduated with a mechanical engineering degree, the only African American female at the time, and only one of a few women. Although there has been progress made over the years, the number of female graduates in engineering is still sub-par. Women continue to be underrepresented in STEM careers, where a staggering

86 percent of engineers and 74 percent of computer professionals are men. The percentage of women in STEM careers has not improved since 2001, specifically within the engineering (12 percent) and computing (26 percent) workforces. 1,2

But while the numbers of women have been small, their contributions to the world, to science, and to society have been enormous. We need young girls to have exposure to STEM education because without their brains and their ideas, we will all miss out on the possibilities of our future.

SC: How can the girls in this program continue to explore a STEM interest after the three weeks are up?

JNS: We know that the 3 week summer engagement is not enough to keep girls on the continuum towards a STEM career, and that’s why we built opportunities in the program for the girls to continue to collaborate and build on what they learned over the summer. Throughout the academic year, the girls will meet virtually and at least once a month in-person to continue working on the projects they created over the summer, to meet with mentors and entrepreneurs, and to learn new STEM skills.

The program was developed under Verizon Innovative Learning, an initiative of the Verizon Foundation to bring free technology, access and hands-on immersive learning experience to kids in need to prepare them to thrive in a digital economy. This year, Verizon launched #weneedmore, an effort to bring more attention to the critical need for more kids to see the world of possibilities waiting for them in STEM fields.  Learn more at

About Verizon Innovative Learning
Verizon Innovative Learning, the education initiative of the Verizon Foundation, brings technology and hands-on learning opportunities to middle and high school students in underserved schools and communities. We not only fund the programs, but we also create and administer them in partnership with leading nonprofits. We diligently measure the impact of our work and refine our programs to ensure we’re making a difference. We’ve reached more than 300,000 students so far – and we’re just getting started. For more information about Verizon’s philanthropic work, visit; or for regular updates, visit Facebook ( and Twitter (

1 Change the Equation, The Diversity Dilemma, 2015.

2 Work to Do, Carnegie Science Center, 2014.