Paving a Path toward STEM

A new project aims to improve STEM pathways for underrepresented students in Pittsburgh and beyond.

A University of Pittsburgh team recently received a $300,000 award to develop a pilot program aimed at strengthening pathways for underrepresented students to enter post-secondary STEM programs and embark upon STEM-related careers.

The award is one of 27 given by the National Science Foundation’s INCLUDES (Inclusion across the Nation of Communities of Learners of Underrepresented Discoverers in Engineering and Science) program, which aims to enhance U.S. leadership in STEM discoveries and innovations through a commitment to diversity and inclusion.

INCLUDES Group / Photo via the University of Pittsburgh

Image (from left to right): Jennifer Iriti, Lori Delale-O’Connor David Boone, Alaine Allen, and Alison Slinskey Legg / Photo via www.engineering.pitt.edu.

INCLUDES is intended to expand the nation’s leadership and talent pools by creating paths to STEM education and careers for underrepresented populations, including people of color, women, and persons from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.

Pitt’s team is led by Dr. Alison Slinskey Legg, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Biological Sciences and Director of Outreach Programs, and includes partners from five separate schools. Over the course of the two-year project, the team will focus on four specific aims:

  • creating a community engagement framework to recruit underserved and underrepresented high school students to STEM pre-college programs;
  • developing a “STEM Success Matrix” to identify the skills acquired in these pre-college programs that prepare students for college success in STEM majors;
  • credentialing pre-college programs using the Success Matrix; and
  • developing a badging system

The project grew out of connections formed at Remake Learning events. Remarkably, several of the Pitt-affiliated team members were running pre-college programs aimed at providing STEM skills to underrepresented groups, but operating within their own individual schools or departments.

“We started to connect around commonalities,” said Slinskey Legg, the head of Gene Team, a summer program run through the Department of Biological Sciences that engages high school students from Pittsburgh Public Schools in current university research projects. “The programs were each successful in the things we measured, but we were all frustrated by the fact that there exists no way to document competencies and have those skills and that rigor count in any way toward admissions decisions.”

Over at the Swanson School of Engineering, Dr. Alaine M. Allen, Director of the Pre-College and Undergraduate Diversity Programs, faced a similar frustration with INVESTING NOW, a pre-college program that provides tutoring, hands-on science and engineering, and college planning to underrepresented students beginning the summer after eighth grade.

“We have the opportunity to develop relationships with these students over the years,” Allen said. “We see their tenacity, their work ethic. We see leadership.”

But when it comes to college admissions, these qualities are not represented on student transcripts, allowing factors like lower SAT scores to derail students’ hopes of admission to research universities like Pitt. One aim of the INCLUDES-funded project is to address that discrepancy between students’ competencies and how they appear to admissions committees. The team is working with a representative of Pitt’s Office of Admissions to look for ways to fine-tune the university’s admissions process so that talented students aren’t turned away.

“What are some of the factors that STEM professionals are looking for that indicate that a student can come in and be successful at the university level?” asked Allen. “And then how can we, where necessary, ramp up our program so that we’re providing that? Or effectively communicate that to all the decision makers on the other end?”

Communicating those skills may involve emerging educational technologies like digital badging or portfolios, said Anne Sekula, former Director of the Remake Learning Council.

“We want to demonstrate that these are the students you’d want to have in your university,” she said. “They’re dedicated, pursuing STEM research in their free time, they’re leaders in their schools and communities.”

The project’s focus extends beyond college admissions to seek ways of providing area high school students a clearer and smoother pathway to STEM education and careers.

For those in underserved communities, said Dr. Lori Delale-O’Connor, assistant professor of Education at Pitt’s Center for Urban Education, that pathway contains many pitfalls and points of disconnection, including simply getting started on the path in the first place. And even when students have found access points, such as a workshop at a museum or library, it may not be clear where to take their newfound interest in STEM fields.

“There are some communities we’re not reaching,” said Delale-O’Connor. “How do we make sure individual neighborhoods are not left behind?”

Sekula agreed, saying, “We are trying to think about the pipeline in this massive way. Can we expand it so that we’re capturing the full breadth of what kids can be and can do?”

Delale-O’Connor highlighted the dual nature of the project, which aims to transform the STEM pathway in Pittsburgh, including the admissions process at Pitt, but which is also geared toward generating observations, best practices, and advice that can be taken up by other universities and communities nationwide.

“I know we’re going to have impact on our immediate environment,” she said. “The energy is definitely there. But hopefully everything we’ve learned can be taken up at a broader level, and that is always really exciting to participate in.”


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