The Propel program was initiated by Elements of Education to address the disproportionately low rate of girls applying to the STEM-focused high schools in Tacoma Public Schools. Between 2017 and 2019, 33% of the applicants to the two STEM-focused high schools identified as female, compared with 76% of the applicants to the performing arts high school identifying as girls. Propel has been co-developed by Jaleesa Trapp (LLK) and Zach Varnell (Elements of Education) at IDEA High School in Tacoma Public Schools, working closely with high school students as co-designers and mentors of project-based activities for middle-school students. The program was first prototyped as a summer and winter program, then expanded to a full-year course.
Jaleesa Trapp has guided the iterative design of the Propel program to develop equitable pathways into STEM classes and careers, building on her research as a graduate student in the Lifelong Kindergarten group. Her work is informed by her experience growing up attending Tacoma Public Schools as well as her experience as an educator, including serving for the past five years as a high-school Computer Science teacher in Tacoma Public Schools. In her Master's thesis (Trapp, 2019), she documents the contrast between her experience as a middle-school student attending science class—which emphasized rigidly following rules (with constant threat of disciplinary action)—to the after-school environment of the Tacoma Computer Clubhouse that she attended, which encouraged exploration, experimentation, peer learning, and mentorship. In the design of the Propel program, Trapp is building on the Clubhouse learning approach (Resnick & Rusk, 2009), adapting the mentoring model to work across middle- and high-schools in order to greatly expand opportunities for young people from non-dominant groups to become designers and innovators in STEM.
The Propel program began as an in-person model, and has transitioned to online mentoring and facilitation sessions during Fall of 2020, as schools shifted to remote learning due to COVID-19. The Propel program has increased gender, racial, and ethnic diversity of students opting into STEM classes and significantly expanded students' knowledge and interest in STEM careers (Trapp, 2019). More than 70% students have started with little to no knowledge of STEM professions or connections to people in STEM-fields, and finish Propel with an expanded network of connections across computer science, engineering, chemistry, and life sciences.