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Mentoring program for local girls developed by Indiana University Northwest graduate

Jennifer McIntosh-Elkins created the regional program, Discoveries Unlimited, with the goal of encouraging girls’ interest in STEM disciplines


Jennifer McIntosh-Elkins

IU Northwest File Photo
Jennifer McIntosh-Elkins

Children and education have always been central to Jennifer McIntosh-Elkins’s life. As the mother of three teenagers and an active member of the Indiana University Northwest Alumni Association, she understands the value of knowledge and empowerment. 

In fact, it was her oldest daughter, Olivia, who served as the inspiring force behind Discoveries Unlimited, a mentoring program founded by McIntosh-Elkins in 2008. The program is focused on providing experiences and resources to young girls interested in the subjects of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). 

While in middle school, Olivia had an interest in cyber-forensics. To help her daughter further explore the career opportunities in this field, McIntosh-Elkins set up a lunch with Olivia and the CEO of a cyber-forensics company. 

“In less than two hours, this woman outlined my daughter’s entire college career and told her what classes she needed to take,” McIntosh-Elkins said. “Through this conversation, my daughter’s world opened. 

“Seeing what this one meeting did for my daughter, I knew I could build a mentor program and do more for the children in Indiana.” 

To launch the program, McIntosh-Elkins first tapped into the resources of the IU Alumni Association. She shared her initial vision with select alumni, all of whom agreed she was on track to build a program that was not only unique but that would help close Indiana’s “brain drain”.

“If you look globally, people are getting more into science, technology, engineering and mathematics and we (United States) are falling behind,” McIntosh-Elkins said. “I wanted to start somewhere to help make a difference and so I decided to start with a sector that is primarily not as targeted in the STEM field: the female population.”

After several years of coordination and research, the Discoveries Unlimited mentoring program began in January 2010 with a semester-long pilot program focused on 6th grade female students with an interest in a STEM field. The program paired students with mentors whose careers matched the mentee’s interest. 

In addition to weekly interactions focused on career and educational mentoring, the mentors and mentees engaged in a variety of activities, including company tours, job shadowing, science and technology events, and college visits. 

“In our pilot program, our girls designed, and built rollercoasters out of foam, pipe and duct tape,” McIntosh-Elkins said. “They set off a weather balloon, worked with FBI software for sketching, programmed robots, and went on a space mission. These girls had opportunities to see things they would have never been able to see otherwise. Plus they had a one-on-one relationship with a professional in their field who guided them through this.” 

At a recent event in April, hundreds of schoolchildren listened intently to Wendy Lawrence, a retired NASA captain, while attending the event co-sponsored by Discoveries Unlimited and the Challenger Learning Center. Lawrence challenged the students to study and achieve in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math. 

McIntosh-Elkins noted that the best program feedback she has received was related to self-confidence, not necessarily career development. 

“Two girls in the (pilot) program used to be very quiet,” she said. “But since being more involved in Discoveries Unlimited, they talk all the time. I asked them what the change was and they both said, ‘It’s okay to be a geek; it’s okay to be me.’ And that is what I want to show these girls; it’s okay to be interested in science; in fact, it is fun!” 

Program expansion 

Discoveries Unlimited has now been expanded, due to the pilot program’s overwhelming success and support. 

Cathie Dull, Director of Development & Recruitment for Discoveries Unlimited and another IU Northwest alumna, said the program grew from 17 students during the pilot program to 31 students now.  In terms of retention, 76 percent of mentees and 70 percent of mentors returned following the pilot program to be involved in the first year’s program. 

“We are thrilled so many individuals have chosen to stay involved with the mentoring program,” Dull said. “The continued interest shows we are building a culture of excitement in STEM education, and that is what is the most exciting.” 

The mentoring program, while expanding quickly, is only open to individuals located in Northwest Indiana. Both McIntosh-Elkins and Dull are hopeful that they will be able to serve all of Indiana in a few years, and nationally in the long-term.

“Currently we are working on a strategic plan for growth. But most importantly, we want to build a quality program. Our focus at this point is quality over quantity,” Dull said. 

In Indiana’s best interest

McIntosh-Elkins recognizes how Discoveries Unlimited can affect, inspire and motivate its female mentees, but she also sees the bigger picture.  As someone who has been involved in the technology field for more than 20 years, she recognizes the need for human capital in the STEM fields, specifically in Northwest Indiana. 

“If you talk to industry professionals, they will say they can’t find the talent and skill sets,” McIntosh-Elkins explained. “We only have about 8 percent of the technology jobs in Northwest Indiana. We (Northwest Indianans) cannot sit back and think something will happen and these skill sets will magically develop. We have to start growing our own and training our children.” 

McIntosh-Elkins believes that Discoveries Unlimited is working toward that greater goal.

“It shows young girls the potential that lies in their backyard,” she said.

For more information on how to become involved with the program, please visit their Web site, www.discoveriesunlimited.org.

McIntosh-Elkins graduated from IU Northwest with a bachelor's degree in Spanish and organizational communication in 1991 and a master of business administration degree in 1998. She is a longtime member of the IU Northwest Alumni Association and served as vice president in 2000-01 and as president in 2001-02. She also served as an at-large member of the IUAA Executive Council from 2002 through 2005. 

Dull graduated from IU Northwest in 1994 with a bachelor’s degree in organizational communications. Dull and McIntosh-Elkins met at IU Northwest through their involvement with the Student Government Association.

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Media Contact

Emily Banas
Office of Marketing and Communications
980-6536
ebanas@iun.edu

Erika Rose
Office of Marketing and Communications
981-4358
erikrose@iun.edu

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Additional Article Photos

IU Northwest File Photo
Cathie Dull and Jennifer McIntosh-Elkins