HIGH SCHOOL & UNDERGRADUATE EXPERIENCES

CRUCIAL COMPONENTS OF STEM STUDENT PATHWAYS

01/24/2016
STEM
Ashanti Johnson, Liv Detrick and David Siegfried

Internships, research experiences and science exposure programs are pivotal to student success in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Many high school students first affirm their career interests in STEM and many college students discover their passion for research, hone their disciplinary interests, and identify their future graduate program advisor through participation in a research experience.

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Undergraduate research experiences — typically occurring during the summer months — give students insight into graduate school — before making a commitment to a multi-year program — and, as participation in undergraduate research experiences is practically a requirement for admission into a graduate program, such experiences enable students to strengthen their graduate applications. Helping students explore, prepare and achieve their professional and academic goals is central to the role of educators and school administrators; therefore, it is important to understand how to support promising students from all backgrounds in obtaining a summer research internship, starting in their high-school years and continuing through their undergraduate careers.


Equipping High School Students for STEM Success

Research experiences, internships and exposure programs help students succeed and persist in the STEM fields, both during their high school years and beyond, as they transition into college. These paid or voluntary opportunities engage students in authentic STEM experiences and research topics relevant to their communities, two factors shown to support student success in STEM (a broader list of positive factors can be found here: http://www.ibparticipation.org/pdf/Designing_for_Success.pdf). Such factors help students develop not only self-confidence, but an experiential framework within which to better understand fundamental abstract STEM concepts they may have missed or struggled with in classroom settings. Participation in an internship and/or research program during high school can strengthen students’ applications to college and to undergraduate research programs, particularly when they can acquire letters of recommendation from mentors and directors of the high school level programs they attended. The paid or voluntary opportunities engage students in authentic STEM experiences and research topics relevant to their communities, two factors shown to support student success in STEM (a broader list of positive factors can be found here: http://www.ibparticipation.org/pdf/Designing_for_Success.pdf). Such factors help students develop not only self-confidence, but an experiential framework within which to better understand fundamental abstract STEM concepts they may have missed or struggled with in classroom settings. Participation in an internship and/or research program during high school can strengthen students’ applications to college and to undergraduate research programs, particularly when they can acquire letters of recommendation from mentors and directors of the high school level programs they attended. The PathwaysToScience.org website (paid or voluntary opportunities engage students in authentic STEM experiences and research topics relevant to their communities, two factors shown to support student success in STEM (a broader list of positive factors can be found here: http://www.ibparticipation.org/pdf/Designing_for_Success.pdf). Such factors help students develop not only self-confidence, but an experiential framework within which to better understand fundamental abstract STEM concepts they may have missed or struggled with in classroom settings. Participation in an internship and/or research program during high school can strengthen students’ applications to college and to undergraduate research programs, particularly when they can acquire letters of recommendation from mentors and directors of the high school level programs they attended. The PathwaysToScience.org website (http://www.pathwaystoscience.org/K12.aspx) contains resources for high-school students — including a search link for nationally recognized programs — and many local and regional programs can be found through state education department websites and through the Change the Equation website (paid or voluntary opportunities engage students in authentic STEM experiences and research topics relevant to their communities, two factors shown to support student success in STEM (a broader list of positive factors can be found here: http://www.ibparticipation.org/pdf/Designing_for_Success.pdf). Such factors help students develop not only self-confidence, but an experiential framework within which to better understand fundamental abstract STEM concepts they may have missed or struggled with in classroom settings. Participation in an internship and/or research program during high school can strengthen students’ applications to college and to undergraduate research programs, particularly when they can acquire letters of recommendation from mentors and directors of the high school level programs they attended. The PathwaysToScience.org website (http://www.pathwaystoscience.org/K12.aspx) contains resources for high-school students — including a search link for nationally recognized programs — and many local and regional programs can be found through state education department websites and through the Change the Equation website (http://changetheequation.org/stemworks).

High school students applying to college should consider on-campus summer opportunities for research offered by the schools to which they are applying. Students pursuing a two year college and planning to transition to a four year school should consider whether their college has any partnerships with universities in the area, and whether the faculty have a demonstrated record of assisting students with participation in research programs and with transitioning to four year colleges. This type of research can take time, but note there is a growing list of two year and four year colleges joining the American Honors network (https://americanhonors.org) that helps to streamline application and transfer processes. Such students benefit greatly from strong mentors at their two-year colleges who are willing to challenge their students as well as advocate for them. Helping students choose the best two-year college can make a big difference for their future STEM careers. The Partners Directory on the High school students applying to college should consider on-campus summer opportunities for research offered by the schools to which they are applying. Students pursuing a two year college and planning to transition to a four year school should consider whether their college has any partnerships with universities in the area, and whether the faculty have a demonstrated record of assisting students with participation in research programs and with transitioning to four year colleges. This type of research can take time, but note there is a growing list of two year and four year colleges joining the American Honors network (https://americanhonors.org) that helps to streamline application and transfer processes. Such students benefit greatly from strong mentors at their two-year colleges who are willing to challenge their students as well as advocate for them. Helping students choose the best two-year college can make a big difference for their future STEM careers. The Partners Directory on the PathwaysToScience.org website contains over 1,000 individuals associated with two year colleges around the country who are dedicated to students interested in STEM, especially those from minority groups that are underrepresented in STEM (High school students applying to college should consider on-campus summer opportunities for research offered by the schools to which they are applying. Students pursuing a two year college and planning to transition to a four year school should consider whether their college has any partnerships with universities in the area, and whether the faculty have a demonstrated record of assisting students with participation in research programs and with transitioning to four year colleges. This type of research can take time, but note there is a growing list of two year and four year colleges joining the American Honors network (https://americanhonors.org) that helps to streamline application and transfer processes. Such students benefit greatly from strong mentors at their two-year colleges who are willing to challenge their students as well as advocate for them. Helping students choose the best two-year college can make a big difference for their future STEM careers. The Partners Directory on the PathwaysToScience.org website contains over 1,000 individuals associated with two year colleges around the country who are dedicated to students interested in STEM, especially those from minority groups that are underrepresented in STEM (http://www.pathwaystoscience.org/Partners.aspx).

Positioning College Freshmen for STEM Research Opportunities

There are upward of 800 Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), in addition to other federally funded summer research experiences, and internships in industry and federal agencies. These undergraduate opportunities typically target rising juniors and seniors with significant competition for placement, especially for the more prestigious programs. Therefore, it’s important for students to use their freshman year to strengthen their resumes in preparation for applying for research experiences during their sophomore and junior years.

Beginning freshman year, students should identify multiple mentors to whom they can turn for professional advice, assistance in networking, academic assistance, and personal support as they learn to master their academic processes and professional development. These mentors will serve as advocates and provide introductions to colleagues and letters of recommendation for research opportunities and eventually graduate programs.

Because effective mentoring is founded in the relationship between two individuals, each has a role in making the mentoring process productive. Students need to be aware of their own needs, how to ask for help, and what to expect from their mentors, while mentors need to understand the various dimensions of mentoring that can be required, and their own strengths and weaknesses within the range of the mentoring role. The PathwaysToScience.org Mentoring Manual is written for both mentees and mentors, and provides advice from seasoned faculty mentors and administrators about what to ask of a mentor, and about how to support students, especially those from underrepresented groups, at every stage of their career. (Because effective mentoring is founded in the relationship between two individuals, each has a role in making the mentoring process productive. Students need to be aware of their own needs, how to ask for help, and what to expect from their mentors, while mentors need to understand the various dimensions of mentoring that can be required, and their own strengths and weaknesses within the range of the mentoring role. The PathwaysToScience.org Mentoring Manual is written for both mentees and mentors, and provides advice from seasoned faculty mentors and administrators about what to ask of a mentor, and about how to support students, especially those from underrepresented groups, at every stage of their career. (http://www.pathwaystoscience.org/manual.aspx)

Freshmen, should begin identifying summer opportunities that are related to research areas they may want to pursue — see how, further down in this article — and discuss them with their mentors. Since most students in this phase are still exploring their interests and have not settled on a specific research area, a perfect disciplinary match is not necessary for students to reap the benefits of a research experience, as long as it is engaging for the student, and provides plenty of hands-on research.

Freshmen should also immediately seek out on-campus research opportunities. A freshman year research experience under the guidance of a faculty member during the academic year, winter break or the summer between the freshman and sophomore year can help strengthen a student’s resume while allowing the student to get a better feel for different fields of STEM and for what research entails. While college freshmen are not yet eligible for many of the off-campus federal research internships that are available, NASA is an example of a major research institution that does provide opportunities for freshmen interested in earth science, biology, astronomy, and chemistry, as well as engineering and technology (https://intern.nasa.gov/ossi/).

Maximizing Undergraduate Research Opportunities

Once a student has begun the sophomore year, opportunities to gain research experience increase significantly, and include 10-week paid summer internships, fellowships, federal and industry internships, international experiences, on-campus academic year-long research assistant positions and an array of other opportunities. This is the time for students to get serious about applying for multiple opportunities, each year until they receive their undergraduate degrees. Application deadlines for summer research programs are typically in early March. During the fall semester students should be engaged in the program search process, and gathering letters of recommendation. In addition to tips for applying to programs and obtaining letters of recommendations (http://www.pathwaystoscience.org/toolbox.aspx), the Once a student has begun the sophomore year, opportunities to gain research experience increase significantly, and include 10-week paid summer internships, fellowships, federal and industry internships, international experiences, on-campus academic year-long research assistant positions and an array of other opportunities. This is the time for students to get serious about applying for multiple opportunities, each year until they receive their undergraduate degrees. Application deadlines for summer research programs are typically in early March. During the fall semester students should be engaged in the program search process, and gathering letters of recommendation. In addition to tips for applying to programs and obtaining letters of recommendations (http://www.pathwaystoscience.org/toolbox.aspx), the PathwaysToScience.org website provides simple and advanced search features, allowing students to search over 650 different paid STEM summer research programs based on a variety of criteria, including geography, discipline, funding types, and institutional affiliation that are funded by a variety of government agencies including the NSF, NASA, Department of Defense, Department of Energy, and portable funding — such as scholarships and fellowships — from sources such as the American Society for Engineering Education, the American Indian Graduate Center, and Geological Society of America (Once a student has begun the sophomore year, opportunities to gain research experience increase significantly, and include 10-week paid summer internships, fellowships, federal and industry internships, international experiences, on-campus academic year-long research assistant positions and an array of other opportunities. This is the time for students to get serious about applying for multiple opportunities, each year until they receive their undergraduate degrees. Application deadlines for summer research programs are typically in early March. During the fall semester students should be engaged in the program search process, and gathering letters of recommendation. In addition to tips for applying to programs and obtaining letters of recommendations (http://www.pathwaystoscience.org/toolbox.aspx), the PathwaysToScience.org website provides simple and advanced search features, allowing students to search over 650 different paid STEM summer research programs based on a variety of criteria, including geography, discipline, funding types, and institutional affiliation that are funded by a variety of government agencies including the NSF, NASA, Department of Defense, Department of Energy, and portable funding — such as scholarships and fellowships — from sources such as the American Society for Engineering Education, the American Indian Graduate Center, and Geological Society of America (http://www.pathwaystoscience.org/Programs.aspx).

Multiple research experiences are crucial for students interested in pursuing STEM careers, and fortunately there are a range of effective resources and strategies for faculty and administrators at all levels to support student success along their pathways to STEM.

Ashanti Johnson, PhD is the Executive Director of the Institute for Broadening Participation, and the Assistant Vice Provost for Faculty Recruitment and an Associate Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Texas at Arlington.Liv Detrick, M.S. is the Deputy Director of the Institute for Broadening Participation (IBP). She manages NSF and NASA funded projects hosted by IBP and also serves as IBP’s web developer.David Siegfried, M.B.A. is the Director of Assessment Processes for the Institute for Broadening Participation (IBP). He designs and conducts program evaluation for IBP and other organizations devoted to broadening participation in STEM
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