Collaboration between higher education, college access programs, nonprofits and private industry led to a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a teen to pitch her ideas to national leaders.
One late spring morning in 2022 , 15-year-old Nova Sportsman and 16-year-old Shaelin Triebe, both sophomores at the time at North Central high school in Spokane, Washington went to school like it was any other day. They knew today would be the day when the grand prize winner would be announced for the BASE 11 Parity Project Innovation Challenge (PPIC). They attended their first period class and headed off to their second, waiting to be called out for the virtual meeting. Both students already knew BASE 11 had narrowed both their projects as the national finalists – one of the projects was going to be the winner. This was an exceptional accomplishment for both of them already having placed with their projects in the statewide MESA competition, and especially remarkable as this was the first year Washington MESA had partnered with BASE 11 to submit entrants to the contest.
The teens sat with UW alum, MESA instructor, and science department lead Parker Britton (’08) and listened closely for the results. Shaelin Triebe’s project “Ezzz Sleep” was announced as the second-place winner which included national recognition and a $1,000 prize. It was in that moment Nova Sportsman realized her project “Menstruation Station” had received the grand prize. Top ranking in the high school category included a $1,750 monetary award and a once-in-a-lifetime sponsored trip to present her ideas to executives and game changers from some of the most influential companies and organizations in the Americas. Winning first or second place in a contest like the BASE 11 PPIC opens doors for students down the road and provides them with experiences that will pay dividends when exploring options for their futures. “I think where these student’s stories really take that huge jump is that they saw that open door and chose to walk through it. They put in the time, effort, and energy – and although the story could stop there, I think that it’s most beautiful because they chose to walk through it without knowing what that next outcome would be,” said Britton.
The grand prize project, “Menstruation Station” focused on disparities in access to hygiene products in the United States and around the world for those who experience menstruation. The project created a vending machine for menstrual products to help combat the period poverty. “Hundreds of millions of people globally suffer from period poverty and I wanted to make something that could help with that,” said Sportsman. “With the state MESA competition theme being ‘equity,’ I thought this would be a great time to work on a solution to this issue.” Sportsman had a partner for the project during the state MESA competition, but BASE 11 allowed only one entrant per project, so she and her partner decided Sportsman would be the one to submit the idea to the BASE 11 PPIC.
Sportsman left that meeting not exactly sure what would come next, but nonetheless happy about having just won a national science contest. She remembers, “I was in my second period, so I had the chance to go to all my different classes and see my friends and tell them. That was super fun and exciting.” She continues, “at first, I guess I was in shock for a couple of days. And then I just got really stressed out because, like, it was a big thing.” The announcement came toward the end of the school year. The final day of classes was on a Thursday, and the following Monday Sportsman was on a plane heading to New York City and Washington DC with chaperone and Washington MESA director for science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education, Sezi Fleming. While in the Big Apple Sportsman presented her project to leadership at JP Morgan Chase, with little time to sightsee before heading to Washington DC to pitch her project to the Executive Leadership Council and next to present to aides for Vice President Kamala Harris.
“Watching Nova pitch was awe-inspiring! Washington MESA encourages students to be leaders, think outside the box and pursue innovative solutions to address inequities. It was amazing to watch this in action. Nova showed poise, charm, confidence, and ingenuity,” said Fleming. Throughout the weekend the winners from every category had some programming with cohort building activities. Fleming continues, “it was also exciting to watch Nova make connections with other winners. As the inaugural group, they have a unique shared experience that cannot be replicated or forgotten.”
While in DC, she was able to visit both the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and the National Museum of the American Indian, as well as witness first-hand the crowds gathered for the decisions of several landmark United States Supreme Court cases. Sportsman was especially interested in visiting the National Museum of the American Indians as a descendant of the Muckleshoot Tribe.
Authentic STEM Learning
Housed at the University of Washington (UW) and operating within the Office of Minority Affairs and Diversity (OMA&D), Washington MESA is a 40-year-old college preparatory program that creates pathways and empowers women, African American, American Indian, Hawaiian Native, Latino and Pacific Islander students to find community and success in STEM careers. While MESA is a nation-wide program, Washington MESA serves almost 3,500 students in fifty-three schools across twenty districts each year. There are more than seventy MESA teachers, much like Nova and Shaelin’s North Central Spokane teacher, Parker Britton who integrate critical problem solving and project-based skills into their everyday course work. Curriculum is designed to allow students the opportunity to authentically experience science in their own way and to progress in a way that is meaningful to them. This includes many hands-on experiences and student-led research projects, just like the two that were selected as national finalists for the BASE 11 PPIC.
“Although matriculation to a college or university is always one goal, MESA creates an environment that allows people to find their own place,” says Britton. “As a result of that environment and seeing people that give students the confidence and help, it inspires the confidence that who they are is relevant and valuable in that classroom. It helps instill the belief that their personal experiences are valuable to a project that is working toward just providing a solution.” Classrooms are intentional to include students and teachers that other students can easily identify with, not just visually, but a diverse representation of life experiences and backgrounds. To date, Washington MESA reports accelerating over 14,000 students across the country.
Impact of Collaboration
The connection between Washington MESA and BASE 11 was obvious to OMA&D Vice President Rickey Hall. On a November day in 2020, he received a phone call from Carlos Miller, a vice president at a major corporation centered on STEM. Miller’s area of expertise is electronics and aerospace and had reached out to Hall to discuss opportunities to promote and develop a more diverse future STEM workforce. He was interested in connecting with students in Washington state and wanted to begin with the UW. “He reached out to me with the West Coast representative for BASE 11. When we met, they gave me a high-level overview of BASE 11, and as I listened to them I said, who really needs to learn more about this is our folks in Washington MESA, and the Pacific Northwest LSAMP LSAMP (Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation).” BASE 11 is a national nonprofit with the goal to accelerate 100,000 students on pathways to STEM degrees, careers, or entrepreneurship by 2030.
Hall explains why those programs came top of mind for him. “The beauty of those programs are, Washington MESA has a statewide reach, and that Pacific Northwest LSAMP has reach across many of the Northwest states – Idaho, Oregon, and here in Washington. Additionally, they both have reach in terms of two year, but also four-year institutions.” Over the following year, BASE 11 and OMA&D programs began assessing where would be the best fit for partnerships, formulating a plan to implement a pilot in the Washington MESA school programs. Formalizing the partnership in 2022, Washington MESA and OMA&D are very proud to have two BASE 11 PPIC finalists in the first year.
Partnerships between college access programs, universities and corporations expand access and opportunity for more students from a wider variety of backgrounds. Leveraging these relationships not only benefits students, but higher education and STEM employers. “There is always going to be more need than resources to do all the things and provide all of the services for the students that we want to serve.” Hall continues, “This partnership speaks to the impact of collaboration. There’s a vast network once we get our students into it – opportunity for education, learning, growth, and development. Out of these opportunities, like the national competition that put them on the radar, but it also might lead to future opportunities. For example, internships or career opportunity for some of our students with some of the best STEM related companies across the country.”
A Look into the Future
As Washington MESA turns forty this year the program plans to deepen access to STEM education in middle and high schools across the state. They look forward to continuing the relationship with BASE 11 and featuring even more students from school districts across Washington in upcoming competitions. VP Rickey Hall notes, “we want all our students prepared to lead and work in this increasingly diverse and complicated world. We certainly know that the STEM field needs to diversify – and we also know diversity leads to innovation and innovation leads to results.”
Fleming adds, “we plan to continue our relationship with BASE 11 and grow awareness of the partnership within our Washington network. We hope to encourage more high school juniors and seniors to participate in the 2023 Parity Project. This will build additional support to help students implement their projects.”
As for Nova Sportsman, she will continue to study and advocate for causes she believes in. She will continue to search for solutions to problems that often go unnoticed, or that affect people without a voice to advocate for themselves. After she graduates high school, she hopes to attend the University of Washington or Evergreen State College to become a field marine biologist.
We create pathways for diverse populations to access postsecondary opportunities, nurture and support their academic success, and cultivate a campus climate that enriches the educational experience for all.
We are leaders in advancing equity for underrepresented groups in higher education, and build from our legacy of advocacy to promote broad inclusion and enact positive change.
About Washington MESA
Washington MESA believes there are many benefits of a diverse and inclusive workplace. Therefore, our programs are targeted to increase representation of women, African Americans, Latino/Hispanic, Native American, and Native Hawaiian/Pacific islanders in STEM fields.
Washington MESA is one of the 11 “MESA States” in the national MESA USA network. Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement (MESA) is nationally recognized for its innovative and effective academic development program. MESA engages thousands of educationally disadvantaged students so they excel in math and science and graduate with STEM degrees. MESA partners with all segments of higher education as well as K-12 institutions.
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