What makes high school students want to study science, technology, engineering and math?

Elizabeth Zulick, an assistant teaching professor at Northeastern, works with a high school student in a biotechnology lab at the university’s Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Complex. Zulick is one of three Northeastern faculty members who have received a grant from the National Science Foundation to study an experiential education program in Kansas to find out what motivates high school students, particularly women and underrepresented minorities, to pursue careers in the STEM fields. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

What makes high school students want to become interested in science, technology, engineering, and math? And what motivates them to pursue careers in these fields?

Three Northeastern University faculty members in the Graduate School of Education have received a grant from the National Science Foundation to answer these questions. They will focus, in particular, on women and underrepresented minorities, which are groups that are disproportionately employed in the fields known collectively as STEM.

Women held only 24 percent of STEM jobs in 2015, according to the  U.S. Department of Commerce. African American and Hispanic workers also continue to be underrepresented in the STEM workforce, according to the Pew Research Institute.

Attracting more students from these groups could help fill a demand for qualified workers in the STEM fields highlighted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which in 2017 projected 2.6 million job openings in STEM in the 10-year period between 2014 to 2024.

To investigate why students become interested in STEM, the Northeastern researchers will study an educational program in Overland Park, Kansas, that prepares students for their careers. High school juniors and seniors who attend the program immerse themselves in fields that interest them and that are in high demand. Students work on projects that are similar to what they would be doing as employees in those industries.

Left to right: Elizabeth Zulick, assistant teaching professor, Kelly Conn, associate teaching professor, and Corliss Thompson, associate teaching professor. Courtesy photos

The program, called the Blue Valley Center for Advanced Professional Studies, helps students identify the fields they might want to continue exploring in college and after graduation. The researchers will evaluate how well the program prepares students for careers specifically in STEM, then share how their work can be used to evaluate similar programs in other public school districts in the United States.

The center is part of an initiative that Northeastern launched, in 2017, to establish new collaborations between K-12 schools and higher education institutions that are interested in experiential education. The initiative, called the Network for Experiential Teaching and Learning, helps educators and community groups collaborate on ways to improve experiential education and make it more accessible to learners.

“As we’re thinking about growing experiential learning and really scaling it in K-12 and in higher education, we want to look at a model more closely to understand how it is actually working pedagogically, and how is it leading students to be more interested in STEM and pursue STEM careers,” says Corliss Thompson, an associate teaching professor at Northeastern who is leading the study, which is funded by a two-year, $397,785 grant.

Northeastern’s Align program is another example of how the university helps increase students’ interest in and access to careers in STEM. The program provides students who did not study computer science in college, or do not have experience in programming, with the opportunity to earn a master’s degree in computer science.

Thompson says that few published studies have evaluated public school experiential learning programs, in which students are working on STEM-oriented projects for companies. She is conducting the study in collaboration with Kelly Conn, an associate teaching professor at Northeastern, and Elizabeth Zulick, an assistant teaching professor at the university.

The researchers will travel to Kansas to observe the program and conduct focus groups with students, teachers, school leaders, alumni, and industry professionals who work with the program. They will use the data collected from their observations and focus groups to create surveys that will be given to students and alumni.

Each semester, about 600 high school students participate in the Blue Valley Center for Advanced Professional Studies program. Students typically spend two-and-a-half hours of their school day at the program.

Each student in the program selects one topic to focus on per semester. Areas of focus are bioscience; engineering; healthcare and medicine; human services; a combination of business, technology, and media; and entrepreneurship. Students who continue the program for a second semester or longer can either study the same topic in more depth in the next semester or choose a different area to study.

Corey Mohn, the executive director of the Blue Valley Center for Advanced Professional Studies, says that “the hallmark of the program is the direct connection to industry.” For their projects, students have conducted market research on a product or industry, built a prototype of a drill bit for an industrial engineering firm, and designed a new logo for a company.

The center launched in 2009, and since then, similar programs have launched in 98 school districts in 13 states and the American School of Bombay in Mumbai, India. Mohn says that now is the right time for a research study to validate aspects of the program that have been successful and also shed light on ways in which the program can be improved.

“I’m really excited about what that could mean in terms of the next iteration of our model and staying out on the cutting edge,” Mohn says.

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