Building STEPS Helps STEM Students Go to College

The initiative gives inner-city kids resources to apply to college and enter the workforce.

Debra E. Hettleman’s goal is to be so successful that she’ll work herself out of a job.

She’s CEO of Building STEPS, a program that’s been in Baltimore for
20 years and identifies about 100 high school juniors annually from 15 Baltimore City public schools who have an interest
in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). It provides field trips, workshops, seminars, summer programs, in-person visits, and other resources as students apply to and attend college, then enter the workforce.

“I’d like Building STEPS to not be necessary,” Hettleman says. “I would like our education system to be so strong that the kids would get all the exposure and support they need through school.” But until we live in that world, she sees the program as “a replicable model propelling students across the country to college and career success.”

“For many reasons, our students may have barriers to doing this,” Hettleman says. “We have a case where a student lives in foster care, and between applying to college and August registration, they moved. They left their paperwork at the original foster house. So, they’re thinking, ‘Now what do I do? I guess I’m not going to go because I don’t have the paperwork.’ But we’re constantly following up. We know when a problem comes up, and we can help the student navigate it.”

Building STEPS students stay in Maryland, allowing team representatives
to visit, forward them care packages, and send them a weekly video of college or professional development tips. As students progress, they receive advice on workplace dynamics, timeliness, workplace body language, how to make small talk, and other soft skills that might not have been available to them in high school.

Eighteen years of Building STEPS alumni, the first of whom are now in their mid-thirties and many of whom have gone on to find STEM careers in Maryland, now offer internships and other opportunities to current Building STEPS students, creating something of a self-sustaining support system.

The program’s 20th anniversary last year gave graduates the chance to reflect, with one writing to Hettleman, “Building STEPS helped me see outside the four walls of high schools and set me up with tools for college.”

Another wrote, “Having exposure to different aspects of the sciences was awesome and made me want to pursue a PhD.”

“I couldn’t write that,” Hettleman says. “That’s the whole purpose, right there. They stick with us, and we stick with them.”