Armstrong: A STEM preschool just for girls? Yeah, why not?

Phaedra Brown, founder of Hope Institute for Science Preschool for Girls, shows off one of the school's signature sweatshirts.

Phaedra Brown can't wait to see Hidden Figures, the new hit movie about three groundbreaking black female mathematicians who helped launch NASA's modern-day space program.

Brown, 39, has a special interest in the film about the so-called human computers, because she runs a STEM-oriented preschool exclusively for girls in East Mount Airy.

The mission of the Hope Institute of Science School for Girls is to get more girls interested in careers in STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Opened late last year, the school has nine would-be scientists, mathematicians, engineers and medical doctors ages 1 to 4 enrolled at a cost of $200 a week.

The school is in the 1500 block of East Wadsworth Avenue in a nondescript strip mall next to a laundromat and across from a pizza place. Inside, the Hope Institute is bright and cheery. The white walls are accented with hot pink and lime green paint. Drawings of the brain colored by students adorn the walls.

Brown has ordered plastic beakers, Erlenmeyer flasks, test tubes, a human skeleton, chemistry sets and a black science table, where her tiny charges can sit and do experiments. She hopes to eventually get the students creating their own lip glosses and hand creams.

When it comes to education, I'm a big believer that there's no such thing as starting too early. But I couldn't help but wonder whether preschoolers aren't a bit young to be sitting around peering into microscopes. How much is too much, too early?

"We think we have a lot of time," Brown warned. "I used to tell my high school students, by the time you get here, you're too late. It's a hard lesson. Education is competitive. . . . We have to start as early as possible."

"Honestly, college is too late," she added.

Brown says it's particularly important to grab girls before they tune out. Studies show they often start out as strong as their male peers in math and science classes but tend to lose interest. As a result, women are vastly underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and computer fields. They hold less than 25 percent of STEM jobs, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.

"We've got half the population that is way underrepresented in those fields and that means that we've got a whole bunch of talent . . . not being encouraged the way they need to," President Obama pointed out in 2013.

Growing up, Brown was always the smart girl in her class. She skipped a couple of grades and graduated from Central High School in 1994 before going on to West Chester University, where she majored in biology with dreams of becoming an obstetrician/gynecologist. But she eventually gave up on that after doing poorly on the Medical College Admission Test.

Brown went on to teach science and algebra at Hopeful Gospel Family Church School in West Oak Lane for eight years before leaving that job to help a friend start the Building Futures Family Center, a preschool in Germantown.

She opened the Hope Institute on Nov. 14 using funds from an inheritance and raised through a GoFundMe account.

On Saturday, she had an open house, hoping to attract more students. Only a couple of potential preschoolers showed up. But Brown is undeterred. She told me she's convinced that by getting girls science-focused early, they won't suffer from crippling fear and self doubt that can cause them to give up on STEM and flock to professions deemed less challenging.

"Everyone thinks science is hard. Math is hard. 'I don't want to do that,'" Brown told me. "So you need someone who looks like them, who's interested in doing it at the same time, having fun with it. ... Now, I didn't have that. [Science] was just in me. But that's a problem that I want to change. I want more black women to get into science, technology, medicine."

And if Brown has anything to do with it, there will be.

@JeniceArmstrong Blog: ph.ly/HeyJen

armstrj@phillynews.com

The Hope Institute of Science School for Girls, 1558 East Wadsworth Ave., is accepting applications for girls ages 6 weeks to 4 years, from all backgrounds, for its preschool. For more information, call 215-621-6302.

[Editor's note: This post has been updated to correct the STEM acronym. It stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics]