A pair of grants from the San Diego Foundation Science & Technology Program – the most recent a $26,150 award in 2021 – have allowed the Elementary Institute of Science in the Emerald Hills neighborhood of Southeast San Diego to launch and sustain Girls Take Flight. Girls Take Flight is a nine-month initiative where students learn to build, program and fly drones, leading to Federal Aviation Administration commercial drone pilot certification.
Virtually all participants have enrolled in college after high school graduation and 90% of the students have passed an FAA exam to become certified drone pilots. In fact, approximately 10% of all female-certified drone pilots in the United States who are under the age of 20 were trained at the Elementary Institute of Science.
‘Ton of Potential’
“This is an intensive program that really levels the playing field for underserved students who have a ton of potential but haven’t had the resources to support them in reaching their goals,” said Charlene Browne, the Elementary Institute of Science’s Director of Development.
Indeed, the program’s aim is not solely to teach girls how to operate a drone, but to discover their capacity in robotics. Just ask Elementary Institute of Science Technology Manager Vanesa Dominguez, who oversaw the last two cohorts of Girls Take Flight.
“The Elementary Institute of Science’s technology programs, especially Girls Take Flight, go beyond teaching girls how to use tech, code or fly drones,” Dominguez said. “As their instructor, I witness a deep change within them — it’s like we plant a seed of self-confidence that lets them see they are capable of things they never thought were possible. “
The financial support from the Science & Technology Program allows for stipends to students that provide motivation to complete the program and also helps connect students to STEM professionals.
By increasing access to STEM education and internship opportunities for those most underrepresented in the field, San Diego Foundation is fulfilling its mission to create a holistic approach in building and expanding pathways to success for all San Diegans, strengthen equity in the region and support the innovation economy for generations to come. To participate in Girls Take Flight, eligible students must be female and enrolled in the 10th or 11th grade at a Title 1 high school. Success can be measured in testimonials from participants.
“This program gave me something to look forward to and gave me hope for my future,” wrote one teen.
“Participating in this program has impacted me by exposing me to different careers and showing me that even though I am a woman of color I can still achieve anything I put my mind to,” stated another.
Said yet another: “It has changed me personally… It’s allowed me to build friendships with girls from different schools who are all interested in the STEM field.”
About Elementary Institute of Science
Girls Take Flight is just one of myriad programs at the Elementary Institute of Science, an afterschool enrichment center. The Elementary Institute of Science was the brainchild of Kennedy Elementary School teacher Tom Watts, who started a science club in his classroom in 1964. Within just a few years, the club had mushroomed into a movement and relocated to an abandoned house that the city of San Diego agreed to rent for $1.
Within five years, the National Science Foundation recognized the institute as one of just five in the world focusing on hands-on science for youth. In 2004, the Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation, the Kresge Foundation and others committed challenged grants that galvanized support from dozens of other local, state and federal institutions, raising enough funds to move into its modern digs on 51st Street. Alumni have gone on to become doctors and scientists – and drone pilots.
The Elementary Institute of Science has partnered with San Diego Foundation for years, most recently through the SDF Science & Technology Program, which invests in organizations connecting youth and young adults with academic opportunities and hands-on experiences in STEM.
“This is a fantastic program, and we are extremely thankful for San Diego Foundation, without which we would not have been able to be where we are today,” said Browne.