Inclusivity + ingenuity + opportunity = Inspire STEM program

Science, Engineering

- Anne Tolson


Fostering diversity and inclusivity in science, technology, engineering and math.

For Daniela Damian, creating a unique program aimed at strengthening student retention among underrepresented groups in STEM disciplines has been a bit like launching a startup company.

Called “Inspire: STEM for Social Impact,” Damian’s program will provide students in the Faculties of Engineering and Computer Science and Science with paid co-op opportunities in which small teams work with industry mentors to develop solutions that address real-life challenges in local communities. 

The program targets students from historically underrepresented groups—encompassing gender, Indigeneity, race and ability.

“I’m building a team, bringing in lots of funding, identifying community projects, building industry partnerships and doing marketing,” says Damian, director of the program. “I feel like I’m launching a startup—it’s been scary but also very exciting!”

To start, the Inspire program will prioritize students in first and second year because that’s where the numbers show the biggest decline, especially among women, says Damian, a software engineer and professor in UVic’s computer science department. “We want to catch these students before they lose interest by giving them an opportunity to make a difference outside the classroom and in collaboration with industry.”

This May, the program’s first cohort will be divided into teams of four students —called Apprentice Garage team members —who work with an industry partner to solve a problem identified as an issue in the community. Damian says projects will have a social impact, in areas such as environmental and social sustainability. The program will also hire senior STEM students as part-time, paid Ambassadors —one for each team—who will coach the more junior students.

Damian has already attracted significant support from industry, the community and UVic, totalling about $1 million in funding. The largest funder is IBM, which is contributing $500,000 over five years, marking the first time the company has supported a Canadian university in following its Apprentice Garage model. Inspire has already attracted 30 industry and community partners.

“I’ve been quite overwhelmed by the positive response from the community,” says Damian. “I’ve felt so empowered by the enthusiasm of the partners, as much as I hope to empower the program participants.”

Damian’s motivation to create the program was sparked by her own research. During her 20 years at UVic, she has studied the human reasons projects developed by software engineering teams succeed or fail. Along with effective communication, she believes the most innovative and successful teams are those that reflect society’s diversity.

“This is what I’ve been interested in for many years and I’m at the point now where I really want to have a broader impact,” she says. “I saw this program as an opportunity to have that kind of wide-reaching effect.”

Damian is working with UVic’s Centre for Asia-Pacific Initiatives (where she is cross-appointed) to create a project with a community partner in a country such as Nepal, Japan or Sri Lanka. Next year, she expects to include high school students in the program.


In this story

Keywords: student life, gender, diversity, industry partnerships, technology

People: Daniela Damian

Publication: The Ring

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