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Illinois researchers to implement, study STEM program for high school, middle schools

University of Illinois College of Engineering

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IMAGE: Participants in the 2018 Girls Learning Electrical Engineering (GLEE) camp don their lab coats and googles. As part of this study, underrepresented students will receive scholarships to these University Illinois... view more 

Credit: University of Illinois College of Engineering

As schools explore ways to encourage more underrepresented students to consider STEM fields, a team from the University of Illinois believes school counselors and year-round experiences are two of the keys. The team will use a 3-year, $1.2 million National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to build a program in middle schools and high schools across the state of Illinois and study its results.

"We believe that school counselors are gatekeepers for opportunity," said Lynford Goddard, a professor of electrical and computer engineering and a co-principal investigator on the project. "They interact with the entire student body about what classes to take. They can advocate with underrepresented groups to enroll in advanced math and science classes as well as take advantage of outside activities to enrich their experiences in STEM."

The proposal is a collaboration between co-PIs Goddard; 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 U of I. Irfran Ahmad, the Executive Director for the Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology, serves as the industry liaison.

In addition to emphasizing the role of the school counselor, the team also believes it's important for students to have year-round STEM experiences. That is why one of the three pillars of the program is to sponsor STEM clubs, which provide engineering design, project- based experiences at the schools, and encourage a diverse group of students to participate. Another pillar is the development of IDEA (inclusion, diversity, equity and access) teams, which will include the school counselor, a teacher, and a third stakeholder at the school dedicated to supporting students at each site. The third pillar will be providing scholarships for underrepresented middle school and high school students to attend Worldwide Youth in Science and Engineering (WYSE) camps offered by the U of I's College of Engineering.

Ultimately, if their study of this work shows the model is effective, they hope to expand the project with private funding beyond the three years of the NSF grant. If successful, the model can also be shared beyond Illinois.

"We are continually committed to increasing diversity and opening up opportunities for underrepresented students, particularly from the State of Illinois" said Rashid Bashir, Dean of the College of Engineering. "This project reiterates that commitment."

Like many schools, the University of Illinois College of Engineering is making strides when it comes to its diversity numbers (the number of women and underrepresented students are up 60 percent since 2013), but in order to make more significant progress in admissions and job placement, grassroots efforts need to increase diversity in the pool of students applying.

"We have to increase the applicant pool just to be able to say we have a chance," Goddard said. "There is also a lot of theory about critical mass and the idea that when 20-30 percent of the classroom is of an underrepresented group, that a person from that group coming into that environment will not feel as isolated. It's about building an inclusive community and a sense of belonging."

Over the course of three years, the team will partner with 24 schools - 20 high schools and four middle schools that feed into one of the 20 high schools. Each year a cohort of eight schools will enter the program, starting this summer. They are targeting schools in Chicago, East St. Louis, and locally, and there are several schools interested.

Partnering with the National Alliance for Partnerships in Equity, the group will provide a 10-day, comprehensive summer institute to equip teams with the knowledge, attitudes, behaviors, and resources to act as effective STEM advocates and learn the technical material the teams are going to study. Lorenzo Baber, an associate professor in the School of Education at Iowa State University and a former Illinois faculty member, will provide educational research on self-efficacy (an individuals' belief they can achieve their goals). They will encourage a network where the schools can communicate with each other about best practices. Representatives from Chip Energy and Henneman Engineering will talk with counselors about industry needs.

Other partners in the project include the Education for Employment (EFE) program, National Instruments, and the University of Illinois Extension.

"We want the schools to understand what sorts of policies and professional practices influence opportunities for students and reflect on strategies they are currently using to address these issues," Goddard said. "Are there normal operating principles that prevent this from being successful? Our goal is to figure out the synergistic effects of year-round programming that creates an atmosphere conducive to getting students into the STEM."

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