STEM Bicycle Club teaches life skills, offers options

Greater Cincinnati middle school students experience magic through bikes

Mary Jane Watson with studentMary Jane Watson suggests to the girls in her Greater Cincinnati STEM Collaborative (GCSC) Bicycle Club that they name their bikes. The middle school students from Norwood Middle School may look at her funny but she has a reason.

"I think it subconsciously gives them a stronger tie to their bike and represents what will happen if they take care of it," says Mary Jane, who is a Senior Scientist at Procter & Gamble. She's also co-captain of P&G's Team Gillette cycling team.

Using bikes as a tool, middle school girls and boys in the Tri-State area strengthen critical thinking, problem solving and perseverance skills through GCSC's STEM Bicycle Clubs. Volunteers like Mary Jane serve as mentors at 10 after-school sessions and help students take apart and rebuild new bikes, provided by the program, that they get to keep.

"For me, the magic is watching these girls light up when they do something they have never done before," says Mary Jane. "This could be as simple as tightening a screw."

GCSC is committed to creating a talent pipeline that encourages interest in science, technology, engineering and math, and represents the region's population; with a particular focus on underrepresented students. Housed within University of Cincinnati's College of Education, Criminal Justice, and Human Services (CECH), GCSC is a part of the college's robust community-focused programming, and is overseen by Kathie Maynard, associate dean for Education Innovations and Community Partnerships.

Many of these students have never owned a bike and the act of working on them—and sometimes learning to ride—allows them to experience curiosity, self-reliance and accomplishment. Since its 2013 beginnings, 1,800 students have benefited from GCSC's 26 clubs and 12,700 volunteer hours.

Mary Jane, who calls herself a "mad scientist," says it's important that students have relationships with those in the STEM fields to see what careers are open to them. She acknowledges that middle school girls often worry about making mistakes and lets them know that failing is a part of learning, part of the scientific method. (The Norwood club is currently all girls.)

"When I'm running an experiment it often doesn't turn out the way I wanted it to but I always learn something," she says. "I tell them failure is positive learning. I think for a lot of these girls science is only about being a doctor or an astronaut."

Mary Jane herself didn't have much guidance when she was in school on how she could tap into science as a career.

"For many years as a scientist, I was the only woman in the room," she says. "Through these clubs, I can help individuals and show boys and girls what a career in STEM might look like. There is so much potential in these clubs."

Mary Jane WatsonDuring her volunteer orientation with GCSC four years ago, Mary Jane was dismayed to learn of the waiting list for clubs, due primarily to the $3,500 start-up cost. This motivated her to begin supporting the clubs philanthropically, on top of her volunteer commitment. She and her partner, Robert Hickey, who are avid cyclists, currently fund two clubs through annual donations, and Mary Jane also made a commitment to support the clubs in her estate plan, which has a significant impact on the long-term viability of the program.

Mary Adams, executive director of GCSC, says that she when visited the Norwood club, she was amazed that the girls and volunteers stayed late talking because they have formed such strong relationships.

"The really special thing is that these girls can learn from another adult in their lives," she says. "It's joyous work because these students are the future."

Our future mad scientists.

*COVID-19 did slow things down in 2020 but eight clubs were still able to meet safely during the 2020-21 school year. Please email gcscstemed@gmail.com if you are interested in volunteering.