UI getting $1.2 million from NSF for project that aims to spread STEM

UI getting $1.2 million from NSF for project that aims to spread STEM

URBANA — A $1.2 million National Science Foundation grant will fund a novel University of Illinois project using high school counselors and year-round "STEM clubs" to propel more women, minorities and low-income students into science and engineering fields.

Those groups are underrepresented in most engineering disciplines, said Professor Lynford Goddard, UI professor of electrical and computer engineering and a principal investigator on the project.

The three-year grant is designed to build a program in middle schools and high schools across the state and study its results.

It will target schools in Chicago, East St. Louis and the Champaign-Urbana area, though others may also apply.

High school counselors are key to the equation, said Goddard, who calls them "gatekeepers for opportunity." They interact with the entire student body, advising students about what classes to take, and can help underrepresented students enroll in advanced math and science courses and take advantage of internships or other outside activities to broaden their experiences with science, technology, engineering and math, he said.

"It is a new approach," Goddard said. "A lot of previous efforts have really focused on interfacing with teachers, and teachers definitely play an important role in the development of students. But we wanted to look at the role that school counselors play."

At each participating school, a counselor will be part of a three-person team designed to support students. Each team will also include a science or math teacher, and the third advocate could be another teacher, assistant principal, after-school coordinator or parent who can help with informal learning opportunities, Goddard said.

The goal is to get more STEM advocates in local schools, he said.

Each school will sponsor STEM clubs, giving students from diverse backgrounds hands-on experience with engineering design projects.

Finally, the project will provide scholarships for underrepresented middle school and high school students to attend Worldwide Youth in Science and Engineering camps every summer offered by the UI College of Engineering.

If the model proves effective, researchers hope to expand it with private funding beyond the three years of the grant, and it could be shared beyond Illinois.

The UI team will partner with 24 schools over three years — 20 high schools and four middle schools that feed into one of the high schools, so researchers can study the impact as students progress through school, Goddard said.

Each year starting this summer, eight schools will enter the program.

Schools will have to apply. Several districts have already shown interest and submitted letters of support, including Champaign, Urbana and Mahomet-Seymour, Goddard said.

The school teams will attend intensive training institutes, starting this summer. They will go back to their schools in the fall and identify students who could take upper-level science and math courses but might not have considered it otherwise, and encourage them to get involved in the STEM clubs.

In all, 72 school officials will be trained, and the hope is to involve about 1,000 students — 42 per school, Goddard said. Summer camp scholarships will be available for 76 students each year starting in 2020.

There's a strong push for colleges to have student demographics in STEM fields that mimic those of the general population and "get more students excited about engineering, math and science," he said.

The UI College of Engineering has made strides in diversifying its undergraduate enrollment, with the number of women and underrepresented students up 60 percent since 2012. But they still represent a fraction of the total, with 2,064 women (23 percent) and 1,101 students identifying as African-American, Hispanic/Latino, Pacific Islander or more than one race (12.3 percent).

Nationally, African-American and Hispanic/Latino students each make up 3 percent to 7 percent of enrollment in all engineering fields, Goddard said. Women typically make up 20 percent or less in most disciplines, though the number tops 50 percent in bioengineering and environmental engineering, he said.

Grassroots efforts are needed to diversify the pool of students applying to college, to boost those numbers, officials said.

The point of the new project is to create an inclusive environment, not just for underrepresented minorities but for women, students from rural areas or low-income families, and those who are the first in their families to attend college, Goddard said.

The opportunities available to students in lower-income areas are "significantly different" from those who attend magnet schools or strong STEM academies, he said.

An elective course in electronics that Goddard took in high school, along with his physics and calculus classes, "got me excited about going into science and engineering." Those kinds of hands-on opportunities are crucial for students who are deciding what they're going to do with the rest of their lives, he said.

Meghan McGreevy, a counselor at Edison Middle School, supported the original grant proposal.

"I'm just excited to get started," she said Tuesday.

She said Edison has been planning to start a STEM club for some time, and while it's had numerous individual partnerships with organizations on campus, "we've never been able to make a comprehensive STEM program."

"In Champaign as a whole, we do have populations that are underrepresented just in general going to college, and STEM fields are really the way of the future," McGreevy said.

Over the past few years, the school has tried to bring in professors or groups in science and technology to work with students, but it's hard to maintain those relationships, she said.

"Some students at our school, even though we're only a mile away from campus, had never been to campus or interacted with anybody from campus," she said.

"Something like this will help us maintain the relationships with the College of Engineering and ... give us resources that we can't come up with on our own."

Also collaborating on the grant are Lara Hebert, outreach coordinator for the College of Engineering; and Luisa Rosu, a research associate with the Illinois Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Education Initiative at the UI.

Other partners include the Education for Employment program, National Instruments, UI Extension, Chip Energy and Henneman Engineering.