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Filling The Stem Field Pipeline: URC Institutions Inspires Next Generation Of Researchers

The Science, Technology, Engineering, Math (STEM) fields are the fastest growing job sector in the country. The U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics however, forecasts a 230,000 STEM worker shortage by 2018. To help fill that pipeline, Michigan State University, Wayne State University, and the University of Michigan have instituted a number of programs geared toward getting young students interested in subjects like science and math and pursuing careers in the STEM fields.

Michigan State University

One of the many programs developed by Michigan State University designed to give high school students hands-on research and laboratory experience is the Future Scientists program, which is jointly sponsored by the American Cancer Society, Great Lakes Division, Inc., and the Lansing School District.

The highly competitive program, which just wrapped up its third summer of operation, provides a stipend to a handful of high-potential Lansing, Mich., high school juniors to work in a laboratory on MSU’s campus for eight weeks. Each participant works on one individual research project, which is different from all other projects. The participant is guided by faculty, staff, and doctoral students who themselves are researchers in this area. Only one student is placed in any given laboratory.

“The primary objective of the program is to help students develop a deeper understanding of the process of inquiry,” said Pam Hunt, the program’s outreach coordinator. According to Hunt, other objectives include:

  • Addressing the nation’s shortage of scientific researchers
  • Giving students the opportunity to make use of the intellectual, social, and other resources afforded by a university institution and community
  • Providing a real-life science experience to talented young people who may not necessarily have higher education as a goal, thereby encouraging them to go to college and pursue a science education
  • Giving a practical resume-building work experience as a team member in a university laboratory
  • Building a formal pipeline of talent into the sciences

“So far the program is paying significant dividends with between 80-90 percent of all participants having gone on to pursue a science education in college,” Hunt added.

Audrey Meredith, who has gone on to pursue a human biology major at MSU, was one of the first participants in the program. Meredith’s project was to conduct an experiment related to osteosarcoma research. Surgery is required to remove the cancerous tissue and prosthetics are often used to replace bone. The purpose of Meredith’s experiment was to determine whether a POSS coated prosthesis would be more conducive to bone integration.

“This program was invaluable for me to realize that I really want to do some type of health-related research,” Meredith said. “I think a lot of kids are intimidated by the sciences, but they shouldn’t be. Science today is a real collaborative effort between many different disciplines. Programs like this provide students with mentors who support and walk you through every step of the way.”

Wayne State University

Wayne State University faculty are collaborating on a federally funded effort to minimize health disparities nationwide by increasing the number of local high school girls, particularly those of color, who enter college prepared to study health-related STEM disciplines.

Directed toward seventh-grade girls, the goal of the Gaining Options-Girls Investigate Real Life (GO-GIRL) intervention is to increase and sustain engagement of girls in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines; build capacities to pursue those disciplines by increasing girls’ and parents’ knowledge of the personal academic skills necessary for college admission in health-related STEM fields; and provide continuity throughout high school by connecting girls to role models and mentors in health-related STEM disciplines.

Leading that effort is Sally K. Roberts, Ed.D., assistant professor of mathematics education in Wayne State’s College of Education, who recently received a $1.7 million, five-year grant from the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities of the National Institutes of Health. She is taking a three-pronged approach that aims to increase the interest of metropolitan Detroit area girls in health-related STEM disciplines.

The intervention is comprised of summer academies; academic year cafes for girls and parents; and continuous mentoring support by WSU undergraduate women students through social networking sites and other technology.

“Our proposed intervention moves beyond engagement and motivation and includes a systematic plan to provide continuity to college for adolescent girls and parents,” Roberts said. “GO-GIRL is much more than a one-time intervention program; it is a community that provides support for parents and their daughters as they prepare for college and beyond.”

GO-GIRL has enriched the academic experiences of more than 600 adolescent girls since the first class completed the program in 2002. Last semester, girls from 57 middle schools and 22 communities in metropolitan Detroit took part in GO-GIRL. Though demographics vary from year to year, most of the girls are African-American.

The program is important, Roberts said, because members of disadvantaged social groups — such as racial and ethnic minorities, women, the poor, and other groups who frequently face discrimination — continue to experience substandard health or greater health risks than more advantaged social groups.

“The representation of diverse populations in health-related STEM disciplines, health professions and policy-making positions is critical to the nation’s ability to eliminate disparities in the quality and availability of health care for underserved populations,” she said.

University of Michigan

On the whole, the United States performs below the mean of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries in math and science. According to U-M’s Dean of the School of Education Deborah Loewenberg Ball, this is traceable to the quality of teaching.

“What we’re learning is that if the teaching of mathematics and science were much more skillful — meaning more challenging, more able to fill in gaps, get students more interested in accelerated problem solving — we would be getting very different results,” Ball explained. “Training teachers differently, specifically in mathematics and science, would have a profound effect on the pipeline in STEM fields.”

Over the last several years, U-M has made significant changes to its teacher education programs to focus directly on the core capabilities needed for skillful teaching, and to increase the specificity of clinical training and assessment. Based upon the success of this redesigned teacher education program, the School of Education has established a national organization called TeachingWorks.

“U-M trains about 300 new teachers per year, but there are more than 3.5 million teachers in the country,” Ball said. “In order to have the kind of impact that is needed, we launched a new national organization whose mission it is to provide resources and tools for other teacher preparation and residency programs across the country.”

The goal of TeachingWorks is to establish a true professional system for the practice of teaching so that every child will have a teacher who is prepared to help him or her achieve.

TeachingWorks centers around 19 high leverage practices of teaching — very specific tasks or activities in which teachers have to engage to help students learn. According to Ball, if teachers do them skillfully, students learn much more. One example of a high-leverage practice is the ability to recognize common patterns in students’ thinking.

“Students make very typical errors when learning new material,” Ball said. “You need skill to hear what students are saying and how they are interpreting content and reasoning about it. We need teachers to be able to distinguish between very common and predictable things that are easily remedied and things that are very serious learning problems. We want to train people to recognize those patterns and to build assessments to help us know if beginning teachers are good at making those distinctions. If they’re not, we shouldn’t put them in front of kids yet.”

Ball says that the program borrowed heavily from the way other disciplines train their professionals. “For example, traditionally, teacher education occurred entirely in the classroom and through experience—learn theory then go out to real schools to practice,” she explained. “But that’s not how we train doctors; we don’t have them learn theory in the classroom then just let them work on real patients. We focus carefully and precisely on specific instructional practices, and we use a range of ways to provide practice, gradually increasing the complexity and responsibility that beginners have. It is important to provide close supervision with a lot of feedback.”

Also according to Ball, just knowing the subject matter isn’t enough to be able to teach it. “We’ve learned from research that just being good at math isn’t enough; a teacher needs to know more things about mathematics—more ways of explaining, representing things diagrammatically, expressing things in different ways, detecting if students’ responses are right or not. These are the core elements: a focus on practice and a revised way of understanding academic training.”

Jaclyn Facca is one of the first U-M graduates to go through the reformed School of Education program and has just recently been hired as a first-year elementary school teacher.

“I always loved math, but being in the program completely changed my perspective,” Facca said. “I discovered that, aside from knowing how to do something, it is much more important and ultimately much more effective to be able to explain how things work, why it makes sense, and be able to lead that discussion. It was a real eye-opener for me.”

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