Date June 16, 2023
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For local kids, STEM to Stern aims to make both science and sport engaging and accessible

With support from dozens of Brown volunteers, a Brown biology professor and men’s crew coach launched a free program that brings rowing and science lessons to local middle schoolers from the Providence area.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Growing up, Nigel Fortes found little interest in playing sports. After a brief stint in youth soccer at age five, he felt discouraged when his command of the sport didn’t come quickly.

“I did one six-week soccer session, and I didn’t like it,” said Fortes, now a ninth-grader at East Providence High School. “I thought I’d make a lot more progress, and I would get frustrated when that didn’t happen.”

A few years later at Edward R. Martin Middle School, Fortes described himself as a “techy” kid who might have easily ruled out sports altogether. That changed, however, in the summer before eighth grade when he discovered a new, natural athleticism he never knew he possessed through a sport he didn’t know existed — rowing. With limited budgets, most public schools don’t offer the sport, and lessons and dues for club rowing can be costly. Travel expenses for regattas can also hinder participation.

So how did Fortes end up a rower?

Determined to expand the reach and accessibility of the sport, two members of the Brown University community — Kristi Wharton, a biology professor and president of the Narragansett Boat Club, and men’s crew coach Paul Cooke — joined forces to create a program designed to introduce rowing to Providence-area middle schoolers.

The free summer and after-school program, named STEM to Stern, couples rowing lessons on the Seekonk River in Providence with hands-on science lessons in Brown classrooms led by University faculty and students. By partnering with Martin Middle School, the San Miguel School in Providence and the Boys and Girls Club of East Providence, the program recruits nearly a dozen middle school students each summer, fall and spring and has welcomed more than 30 newcomers to the sport since its start in 2021.

Nigel’s mother, Shelsea Fortes, jumped at the opportunity to enroll him in the youth rowing program after learning about it from the Boys and Girls Club. Like most parents, she was eager to keep her teenager active during the summer and appreciated that the program was offered at no charge.

“That summer, we were in a bit of a limbo because we hadn’t signed up yet for any camps,” Fortes said. “Once I saw that they offered the program for free, I signed him up immediately. We don’t have much money to throw around for activities, so I was very excited when he got in.”

To learn to row, STEM to Stern participants practice as part of the Narragansett Boat Club’s youth program led out of the club’s boathouse in Providence’s Fox Point. Some STEM to Stern rowers, including Nigel, accelerate through the club’s class progression. Those with no rowing experience begin in the barge, a wide, stable 12-person boat steered by an experienced coach, before progressing into narrower, more fragile, faster boats. In roughly a year, Fortes jumped from first-timer to fierce competitor. Last summer, he was invited to row with the club’s high school team and is now competing in some of the largest rowing regattas in the region. That journey, he said, has been transformational.

“When this all started, I didn’t even know what rowing was, but after that first day on the water, I felt something sort of click,” he said. “I’m stunned to have made this much progress in such a short time — one moment, I’m in the barge, and then the next, I’m in Boston competing.” 

San Miguel student rowing
Emmanuel Gourdet, a seventh-grader at the San Miguel School practices rowing on the Seekonk River.

Breaking barriers

Wharton and Cooke may be making a splash in the Ocean State with STEM to Stern, but the broader national program started in the Midwest. In 2016, Will Bott, then a coach with the Milwaukee Rowing Club, created the initiative in partnership with the Milwaukee School of Engineering to make rowing and STEM education more accessible to local students from low-income communities.

STEM to Stern’s initial popularity and success, coupled with Bott’s outreach in the rowing community, led other rowing clubs and partner schools to adopt the program model and launch new chapters across the country — the Narragansett Boat Club and Brown chapter was among the first of many new regional programs to launch. Building on that momentum, STEM to Stern joined forces with U.S. Rowing in 2021. This year, the organization is working to expand to 40 club and academic organizations to reach more than 400 new participants across the country.

In establishing the STEM to Stern program in Providence, Cooke hopes to reach local kids in communities that have been historically excluded from the sport.

“The demographic of rowing has expanded in the last few decades, but a large part of the population still doesn’t have access,” Cooke said. “As an athlete and a coach, you want to test yourself against the best, and if part of the population isn’t in the sport, how much of a national championship is it? STEM to Stern is one way we can help ensure that young people from underserved groups can have access to rowing.”

To expand and diversify the sport, STEM to Stern removes all financial barriers for students and families by offering the program for free. To fund the program, the Brown men’s and women’s crew teams lead an annual fundraiser, culminating at the Head of the Charles Regatta held in Boston each October. Narragansett Boat Club coaches and members also help fundraise and donations raised help to fund both the Providence and national STEM to Stern programs.

Bringing rowing to anyone with interest is part of the Narragansett Boat Club’s broader mission, Wharton said. Still, she believes that introducing Providence-area kids to rowing through STEM to Stern is about more than expanding the sport’s reach. She sees the program as particularly impactful for its ability to create a positive, engaging and fun learning environment that brings kids together with mentors, allowing them to build character and confidence and grow as young adults.

“Physically, they’re learning how to row, but really the program is about developing the whole person with values and skills that they’ll use for the rest of their life,” Wharton said. “The boat is not going anywhere if everyone is doing their own thing, but if everyone works together in rhythm, the boat will go fast. It’s teaching them how to work together and how to accomplish much more as a team than you can as an individual.”

Beyond the boat

Phoenix Perkins, an eighth-grader at Martin Middle School, has rowed with STEM to Stern for two years. She said the program has helped her make new friends, build self-confidence and learn the importance of supporting and relying on teammates.

“It brought me out of my shell, and it’s given me a ton of opportunities to talk with others outside of my school,” Perkins said. “With STEM to Stern, I’m part of a team. Rowing is about people working together. Moving the boat is much tougher than people think, but it’s so much fun once you start.”

Exploring science also attracted Perkins to STEM to Stern. Since a young age, she’s favored the sciences at school and enjoys sharing facts and reading science fiction books at home. The STEM component of the program — designed and led by Brown volunteers and held on the campus during the fall and spring — is designed to ignite curiosity in STEM disciplines through experimentation and hands-on learning. From first-year undergraduates to accomplished faculty researchers, nearly 50 Brown community members create and lead the weekly lessons, which cover topics from biology and life sciences to physics and engineering.

To learn the physics behind rollercoasters, for example, students designed and built loop structures using foam tubes and marbles. Other lessons involved testing gravity, extracting DNA from fruit, discovering how lasers work, and examining zebrafish embryos under microscopes. The middle schoolers have also made ice cream using only plastic food storage bags and a few essential ingredients. The ice cream experiment introduced the principles of thermodynamics, a branch of physics that deals with heat, temperature and their relation to energy.

Two Brown students, Payton De La Cruz and Ellia Sweeney serve as the STEM to Stern program coordinators and help recruit volunteers from Brown’s science labs and centers. Each week, student-athletes from the men’s and women’s crew teams serve as mentors and aid with the STEM sessions.

“Our goal is to make science fun,” De La Cruz said, a doctoral candidate in Brown’s pathobiology program. “We invite Brown students from different academic backgrounds to present on something they are either passionate about or are doing research on, and then we create an interactive activity to get the students to try it out and get acquainted with the topics. What’s great about the program is that the kids exercise their bodies and minds.”

Dante Antonelli, a seventh-grader at the San Miguel School, first learned about cells in a STEM to Stern class. When his science teacher at school started a new unit on the topic, he felt excited and confident that he could share some of his newfound knowledge with classmates. 

“When we first started talking about cells in STEM to Stern, it was the first time I learned anything about it,” Antonelli said. “Now, at school, we’re working on cells in class, and so when I go to science, it helps me do better because I already know something about the subject.”

The teenager enjoys exploring new topics with the hands-on STEM activities but favors robotics and computer programming and already imagines himself as an engineering student in college.

“What I like most about the STEM part is that it gives you a chance to be at Brown University,” he said. “It’s like getting a view of college before you’re even there.”

Antonelli is one of a handful of students from San Miguel who participate in STEM to Stern. In 2022, the independent school, which serves 64 middle school boys from the Providence area, recognized the program with an “Outstanding Community Partner” award to Brown and the Narragansett Boat Club, presented at an event that showcased student achievements.

San Miguel Executive Director John Wolf said that for the school’s students, STEM to Stern opens up new ideas of what’s possible. 

STEM to Stern student
Nigel Fortes placed first at a regatta on Lake Quinsigamond in Worcester, Masschusetts. Photo by Shelsea Fortes.

“Before STEM to Stern, our students didn’t know rowing was a real thing, and now they understand that it’s a college sport and it’s something people can do for exercise,” Wolf said. “The program helps open up these thought bubbles of what’s possible in the world, and that possibility can send them on a real life-changing trajectory.”

That sentiment rings true for Nigel Fortes — rowing has given him a new view of the City of Providence and his own physical prowess. Nigel’s mother, Shelsea, said the teen hopes to row in college.

“When this all started, STEM to Stern was an opportunity to keep Nigel busy for two weeks over the summer,” she said. “I didn’t know it was going to take us here. Now where we’re watching him on the Charles River doing something he loves and that he wants to continue to do until he’s on a college team. Attending and competing at Brown would be a dream come true.”

Providence-area parents like Fortes see programs like STEM to Stern — one of hundreds of community-focused initiatives based at Brown — as essential for creating opportunities for young students to grow and thrive.

“Brown is giving opportunities to children that will help them grow in every possible way,” she said. “It can mean the difference between a child who applies themselves and one who gives up. It’s a wonderful thing for the children and the community, and I’m extremely grateful we’ve been part of it.”