The foundation's first class of fellows visit the NIST Quantum Computing Laboratory with Nobel Physics Prize Laureate Bill Phillips and Francisco Salces Carcoba. Credit: Mat Heyman

On Sunday, the Sandra Lee Heyman Foundation welcomed 34 new students from seven Montgomery County high schools into its STEM career exploration fellowship — the largest class to date.

Program graduate Kyle Dalrymple from Richard Montgomery High School credits the fellowship with helping to shape his career path in mechanical engineering. He said he continues to enjoy a close connection with the foundation both personally and professionally.

“With every new class the community grows stronger,” he said.

The fellowship exposes students to a variety of career fields in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, via a series of nine guest speaker events over the course of three semesters, both in-person and virtual. Students selected for the fellowship receive a $500 stipend for their participation.

Sandra Lee Heyman was the head of the Math Department at Richard Montgomery High School and enjoyed teaching students across the spectrum, from basic 101 courses up to calculus.

After her passing in 1998, the family annually awarded one student with a scholarship to recognize their excellence in math. Her son, Justin Heyman, said in 2018 the family decided to expand its efforts by creating the foundation and the STEM fellowships in honor of her legacy.

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“Reflecting on it,” he said, “my family recognized that one of her greatest passions was helping students understand how math can be applicable in the real world [and] that it isn’t just something you take in school — it can be the basis for really exciting careers.”

Heyman said the format for fellowship events usually consists of an interview facilitated by either a board member or guest interviewer tasked with asking the speaker provocative questions about their career path and field of study. After the interview, students are invited to participate in a Q&A session with the speaker.

Fellows have spoken with a colorful variety of STEM experts ranging from chemists and software engineers to astronauts and attorneys to White House personnel and the CTO of Buzzfeed. Heyman recalled a recent event where students visited the Smithsonian National Zoo to speak with bird researchers about the process of tagging birds and logging the data into the zoo’s system.

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Group of fellows visit with a bird researcher at the Smithsonian National Zoo in September 2022. Credit: Mat Heyman

On average, student interest in STEM-specific careers increases 24% after attending one of the fellowship events, according to data from the foundation. Heyman said they always have a few students who begin the program with only a cautious interest in STEM and by the end of the last semester are enthusastic about pursuing a career in the field.

“We’re very proud we’ve been able to have that kind of impact,” he said. “The feedback has been just phenomenal.”

Dalrymple first heard about the fellowship from his math teacher, Laura Goetz, who used to teach with Sandra Lee Heyman before her passing. He was inducted into the foundation’s inaugural class three years ago and is now a student at Johns Hopkins University, where he interns as a researcher with the Space Telescope Science Institute.

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He still attends events alongside new fellows when his schedule allows and said there’s a “continued connection” among students that extends well beyond the end of the fellowship.

Dalrymple said his experiences with the foundation encouraged him to pursue a career in astrophysics and engineering.

“The main benefit of the fellowship for me has been to expose me to the different fields and trajectories each speaker has been through,” he said. “Many of them didn’t start out doing exactly what they’re doing now — I think that’s a general trend in life. But there are people doing a bunch of things I never thought could be combined, and it’s really wonderful.”

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The full fourth class of fellows and their schools has been published to the foundation’s website.