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Chemist’s formula for change helps underserved kids dream big

ORNL chemist and YO-STEM founder Candice Halbert focuses her professional time operating the Liquids Reflectometer at ORNL’s Spallation Neutron Source. Credit: Carlos Jones/ORNL, U.S. Dept. of Energy

A chemist from Oak Ridge National Laboratory attracted national attention when her advocacy for science education made People magazine’s annual “Women Changing the World” issue.

Seven years ago, Candice Halbert founded a nonprofit that connects diverse STEM professionals with underserved youth, including girls, cultural minorities, LGBTQ+ youth and kids from low-income families. YO-STEM, or Youth Outreach for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, gives kids something Halbert did not get when she was young.

“A teacher once told me I thought like an engineer, but I didn’t know what an engineer did,” she said. “I thought they were train conductors. Had I known what a chemical engineer was earlier, I probably would have gone in that direction. YO-STEM gives kids the opportunity to learn about different types of science firsthand so they know what’s possible.”

Halbert envisions YO-STEM expanding into regional chapters, keeping the focus on students from underserved communities.

She began working at ORNL in 2006 when the Spallation Neutron Source, or SNS, began operations. SNS provides unmatched scientific capabilities for thousands of researchers from all over the world studying materials on the atomic scale.

Since that time, Halbert has developed her expertise on one of the first operating instruments at SNS, the Liquids Reflectometer. At the Liquids Reflectometer, scientists learn in depth about changes in materials, such as how polymer thin films respond to stimuli, how battery electrodes degrade from film formation or how bio-membranes absorb proteins on liquid surfaces. Industry relies on this science to deliver advanced materials and technologies that focus on addressing urgent societal concerns, such as climate change and global demands for energy.

It isn’t baking soda volcanoes and making slime

YO-STEM programming involves STEM professionals guiding youth through challenging scientific experiments, nurturing two vital ingredients for STEM success: critical thinking and collaboration. YO-STEM students experiment with different science- and engineering-based activities, such as genetic mutations in fruit flies, 3D printing, water quality testing and forensics — experiments the professionals might not have seen until college.

YO-STEM’s spark first ignited in 2016 when Halbert and a handful of lab colleagues gave tours of ORNL to girls from Vine Middle Magnet School in Knoxville, Tennessee.

“We looked like we could have been their moms or aunts,” Halbert said. “They saw everyday people who looked like them. They were so in awe.”

Soon after that first tour, the group began meeting with the students twice monthly to do science experiments together. Halbert and her colleagues dubbed this pilot program gSTEM, or girls in STEM. As gSTEM’s popularity grew, so did the need for funding. Vine Middle School’s administration asked Halbert to expand her after-school STEM program to include robotics, so she sought nonprofit status for YO-STEM and achieved it in 2017.

Before long, YO-STEM expanded its programs to include students in pre-K through 12th grade, establishing weekend STEM sessions for elementary school children, hosting teams for the Southern Appalachian Science and Engineering Fair, and youth competing in robotics at state and world levels. As a result of its nonprofit status, YO-STEM receives enough support from Knox County, the City of Knoxville and the Knox Education Foundation to pay competitors’ entry fees, travel and lodging.

In 2022, YO-STEM students won for Tennessee’s 2nd District the U.S. House of Representatives’ Congressional App Challenge. This national competition inspires young people to pursue computer science professionally. The app that the students developed tracks school responsibilities and due dates.

While YO-STEM seeks to sharpen its competitive robotics edge, the program also seeks volunteers from other STEM areas, such as environmental science and geography. Halbert said the greatest challenge is attracting committed volunteers who can meet twice weekly, but the rewards shine especially bright.

“When we invest in our kids, we are investing in our future,” she said.

SNS is a DOE Office of Science user facility. UT-Battelle manages ORNL for the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States. The Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit