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Bridging the gap in STEM education

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CHAPEL HILL, NC (April 29, 2024)—Nikitta Grillo’s journey into STEM education shows the transformative power of community engagement, a force that can profoundly shape young minds. As a Community Engagement Specialist at Morehead Planetarium and Science Center, her path has been marked by a deep commitment to igniting the spark of curiosity and passion for science in underserved and underrepresented communities across North Carolina. 

Grillo’s connection with Morehead began years before she joined the staff. Looking for volunteer opportunities for her oldest daughter’s college applications, she discovered Morehead’s STEMville Science Spectacular program and its call for high school-aged volunteers. Held each April since 2014 during Morehead’s North Carolina Science Festival, STEMville engages underserved and underrepresented students in grades 4 through 7 in STEM activities led by UNC-Chapel Hill students and local scientists.

“I was an at-home mom at the time, so because she thought about volunteering, I thought, ‘Oh well, let me sign my other daughter up to attend,’ and so I did, and she got in,” shared Grillo. The STEMville Science Spectacular program profoundly impacted Grillo’s younger daughter, sparking a week of excited conversations about what she had learned. This experience would shape Grillo’s future path.  

Nikitta Grillo at Duke Energy Science Night at Creedmoor Elementary
Nikitta Grillo at Duke Energy Science Night at Creedmoor Elementary

After Grillo became a teacher with Granville County Schools, she reflected on the impact of that program on her children and how she could pull those lessons into the classroom. “I thought about how I worked in a Title One school and how I would want to excite my students about learning, so I used science to do it,” she said. Shortly after that, Grillo would reach out to Morehead and bring the Duke Energy Science Night and GSK Science in the Summer programs to her school, which she would lead both on-site. 

After becoming a Community Engagement Specialist with Morehead, she was able to extend her reach beyond the classroom. “I want kids to be excited about science and STEM, and so that’s what led me to look at Morehead to see what positions were available,” she said. Now, Grillo works to bring STEM opportunities to communities statewide through the North Carolina Science Festival, especially those lacking resources and access. Since joining the team, Grillo’s goal remains to ensure that all 100 counties statewide have access to learning opportunities during the annual celebration of science. 

In a case of full circle, STEMville, where Grillo now leads event planning, is one of the programs closest to her heart. She has seen attendance grow through her efforts, and the program’s reach now extends to new communities. This year’s STEMville event, held on April 13, welcomed diverse groups of students from counties and towns around Morehead, many of whom experienced hands-on activities like using microscopes for the first time. “I think what inspires kids the most is when they actually feel like a scientist, like they’re doing things that scientists do,” said Grillo.  

Grillo attributes much of Morehead’s success in efforts such as STEMville and the North Carolina Science Festival to its inclusive mission and dedication to reaching all corners of the state. For her, “Science for All” is personal— ensuring every person, young and old, regardless of background or location, can explore and embrace the wonders of science. As she continues her work at Morehead, she remains inspired by the countless stories of students whose lives have been transformed by STEM experiences —while reflecting on her unique journey.  

“I moved from sparking interest in science with my daughter to my students, to my school, to my community, and now I work with people all across the state.”