LEXINGTON, Ky. – The STEM Through Authentic Research and Training (START) program at the University of Kentucky is creating a unique pipeline to increase science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) literacy and promote STEM careers for traditionally underrepresented populations (people of color, individuals with disabilities, students from free or reduced lunch schools), first-generation college students, and girls and women in STEM.
The START program is funded by a five-year, $1.3 million Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA) from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS), part of the National Institutes of Health. Luke Bradley, a university Chellgren Endowed Professor, Lewis Honors faculty, and associate professor in the Department of Neuroscience, is the principal investigator on the SEPA grant and START director. Because these demographics are underrepresented in the STEM professions, Bradley said, this program will target underrepresented groups by offering real-world research experiences beginning in elementary school and continuing through graduate school.
“Reaching underrepresented students, before they get to college is critically important,” Bradley said. “That’s why we’re working with Fayette County students, and their teachers, to offer opportunities that otherwise seem out of reach.”
START represents a partnership between UK (providing opportunities for STEM research), The Academies of Lexington (a partnership with the Fayette County Public Schools focused on changing the model for STEM instruction), the Kentucky-West Virginia Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP) program, and Space Tango, a Lexington-based STEM company.
LSAMP is a National Science Foundation-funded consortium led by UK, that includes 10 diverse academic institutions supporting undergraduate research to increase representation and success of traditionally underrepresented populations in STEM disciplines. In START, the undergraduate LSAMP scholars will be trained — through academic coaching in the UK Department of Transformative Learning — as “near-peer” mentors for high school students to create a sense of belonging and help students build an identity in STEM that will carry them through college.
“We have a lot of research that shows near-peer mentoring works, but we also know we need to train people how to do it,” said Julie Bradley, assistant director of academic coaching in the Department of Transformative Learning. “Academic coaching is a special skill set that doesn’t tell people what to do. Instead, we’re sitting students down and saying, ‘To be successful in college, you need academic support, wellness support, and access to opportunity.’ And that access-to-opportunity piece is really where we hone in.” She explains that each student gets their own individual plan based on their strengths to put them on a path to accomplish their goals.
Margaret Mohr-Schroeder, professor of STEM education and associate dean in the College of Education, is a co-investigator on the START project. Ten years ago, Mohr-Schroeder and her husband Craig Schroeder created STEM Camp, a week-long, summer day camp experience for elementary students. Since then, more than 2,000 students have completed camp, learning computer programming through robotics, biology, chemistry, and other STEM content areas on the UK campus. STEM Camp is now part of the START pipeline.
“It’s unprecedented that a College of Medicine and a College of Education collaborate together on a very education-heavy, community-centered piece, with the College of Medicine as the lead in a very positive way. I think that spoke to NIH. And that speaks to UK and the STEM community that we’ve built here,” Mohr-Schroeder said. “This START grant has really been a pinnacle piece in terms of bringing all of those parts together, and I think it’s a new beginning for UK in terms of thinking large-scale on the STEM work that we do.”
Anthony Sinai, START co-investigator and professor in the Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Molecular Genetics in the UK College of Medicine, serves as a coordinator to match students with researchers that fit their interests and design educational programs that are relatable to students.
“One of the things that we have initiated with the schools is ‘Ask the Professor’ where students come up with particular questions of interest to them which would then be relayed to myself or other faculty members. Then we can set up a Zoom call with an entire classroom where we have a frank exchange of whatever topic it is,” Sinai said. “The teachers are the key gatekeepers in this particular process. Because they have contact with the students, they can identify the students who would benefit the most from it or gain the most moving forward. For most students, this is the first of, hopefully, many positive interactions with individuals working in STEM disciplines.”
Bradley said he asked Space Tango to partner with START because it is critical that students see a pathway to real-world STEM careers. Space Tango takes experiments designed on earth to the International Space Station. In November 2020, START students got a virtual tour of Space Tango, given by employees who shared their backgrounds and how they got into STEM.
“Students were asking questions throughout. They were very engaged,” he said. “What came through very powerfully in that presentation is that there’s many places and jobs for individuals, with different skillsets and strengths, to be involved in STEM. That’s what we want students to see.”