The Building STEPs program works with Baltimore high school students to get them ready for college. (Barbara Taylor / Baltimore Sun)
Jada Clifford and her brothers were competing to see who could hold their breath the longest when she suddenly stepped too far into the deep end of a family friend's pool.
Jada, then 8 years old, couldn't swim and felt herself sinking farther into the water. The next thing she remembers is an older friend performing CPR on her, and an ambulance rushing her to the hospital.
That's when Jada first thought that she might want to be a nurse one day. But it wasn't until she got involved with the Building STEPS program that she saw a clear path toward her goal.
Building STEPS is a Baltimore nonprofit that aims to help minority high school students become science and technology professionals. The group recruits high school juniors from 10 underserved Baltimore schools who show promise in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM fields. The program guides students through the college application process, takes them on field trips and sets them up with paid summer internships at places like the National Aquarium and Johns Hopkins.
Jada is now spending five weeks assisting nurses at the University of Maryland Medical Center's Shock Trauma Center.
"The nurses here are role models," said Jada, 17, a rising senior at Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School. "They always make an effort and always make sure their patients are well taken care of."
Building STEPS works to increase minority participation in the booming science and technology fields, said CEO Debra Hettleman. White men made up about half of all employed engineers and scientists in 2015, according to the National Science Foundation. Black and Hispanic women together constituted about 3.5 percent of that workforce.
"These are the kids that are less represented in the STEM fields and least represented on our college campuses," Hettleman said.
The need for qualified workers is growing: Between 2009 and 2015, the number of STEM jobs grew by more than 10 percent, compared to about 5 percent growth of non-STEM occupations, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
"If the United States is going to maintain its competitive edge in terms of innovation in the STEM disciplines, it's absolutely critical that more students who aren't currently participating in the STEM studies become activated to do so," said Dr. Irving McPhail, president of the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering. "This is a matter of national security and it's a matter of equity."
More than 80 percent of Building STEPS participants go on to earn a college degree, with two-thirds of those degrees in a STEM or health care field. The majority of students involved in the program qualify for free and reduced-price lunches, and they are overwhelmingly the first in their families to earn a university degree.
There are about 160 high school students involved for the 2017-2018 year, the largest class so far. Hettleman hopes to expand the program to more schools in the coming school year.
Funded through grants and donations, Building STEPS was founded in 1995 by Matthew Weinberg, CEO of The Weinberg Group, a food and drug regulatory consulting group in n Washington, D.C. In 2000, he relocated the nonprofit to Baltimore.
In the summer before their senior year, Building STEPS students work as interns for five hours a day, four days a week at companies and institutions that volunteer to host them. The students are paid minimum wage through a partnership with YouthWorks, an annual city program that provides summer jobs to city kids.
On Mondays, the Building STEPS students gather for SAT prep, to refine their college essays or do community service, such as packaging sandwiches for the homeless.
Jada said navigating the college application process would be harder without the guidance. She wants to study nursing at Stevenson University. Should she fulfill her dream of earning a nursing degree, she would become the first in her family to graduate from a four-year university.
"It would be a big deal for me to graduate college, a huge accomplishment," she said. "I would have a career instead of just a regular job."
Jada's supervisor, nurse Claudia Handley, said she looks forward to Jada accomplishing that goal.
"If she went to Stevenson, I'd love to see her come back and work as a student nurse and then a registered nurse," Handley said.
Since Building STEPS began 18 years ago, nearly 500 students have gone through the program. It begins when high school juniors — who have an interest in STEM and at least a 3.0 GPA — are nominated by counselors and others.
"These are the kids that people look at and say, 'Oh, they have a B, they'll be fine,'" Hettleman said. "But they might not be fine if they don't have the resources necessary for college access and completion."
Building STEPS staff members meet with the students every three weeks during their senior year to help them fill out college applications and federal student aid forms, and offer other program support.
Eva Wise, another rising senior in the program, said these workshops helped improve her public speaking skills.
"That's going to be important since I want to be a lawyer," the 16-year-old said.
The top reason students in the program don't go to four-year institutions, Hettleman said, is because they did not receive sufficient financial aid.
The program's involvement with the students doesn't end once they leave for college, Hettleman said. The group will connect students with campus resources and provide job recommendation letters and other support even after they graduate.
Alumni have jobs at companies such as Microsoft, Amazon and the U.S. Departments of Defense and Homeland Security. Hettleman gushes about students who have moved through the program successfully and brags about two alums who just earned Ph.D.s and another who ran for the Baltimore City Council.
"Our high schoolers can talk to program alums, who may be someone who lived in their neighborhood," Hettleman said. "It's always nice to know somebody who has been there, done that."
Zarkia Key said her summer internship ata Wilmer Eye Institute lab at Johns Hopkins has been more informative than the classes she took at Northwestern High School.
The Park Heights school closed this year amid declining enrollment. Key said she wasn't challenged during her junior year and was unable to take classes in the advanced science topics she wanted to study.
Building STEPS exposed her to subjects that her budget-strapped school did not. The 17-year-old girl is spending the summer shadowing scientists as they study zebra fish's ability to regenerate.
"Without Building STEPS, I would never have heard of zebra fish," she said. "I would never be working in this lab."