A $1.2 million NSF grant will help Illinois researchers implement and study a three-pillar STEM program for state middle and high school students

4/5/2019 Mike Koon, Engineering Marketing and Communications

New NSF-supported program encourages and supports middle and high school students in STEM disciplines

Written by Mike Koon, Engineering Marketing and Communications

As schools explore ways to encourage more underrepresented students to consider science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) majors and careers, a team led by researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign believes that school counselors and year-round innovative technology experiences are two key factors. The team will use a three-year, $1.2 million National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to implement a program in partnership with middle schools and high schools across the state of Illinois and will study its effectiveness on the development of technical skills and self-efficacy in students and on the practices of counselors.

Lynford Goddard, professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, is the principal investigator on the project.
Lynford Goddard, professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, is the principal investigator on the project.
“We believe that school counselors are an untapped resource for STEM advocacy and gatekeepers for opportunities for their students,” said Lynford Goddard, a professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and principal investigator on the project. “They interact with the entire student body and influence the choices of classes that the students make. They can advocate for students to enroll in advanced math and science classes, as well as to take advantage of outside activities that enrich student interest and knowledge in STEM.”

The new project, entitled “Catalyzing Inclusive STEM Experience All Year Round” (CISTEME365), is a collaboration among researchers at the U of I, the National Alliance for Partnerships in Equity (NAPE), Iowa State University, and the University of North Carolina Greensboro, together with schools and districts, industry, and career and technical education centers across Illinois.>/p>

The initiative includes three interrelated pillars focused on access to formal and informal STEM learning. Inclusion, diversity, equity, and access (IDEA) teams, which bring school counselors together with teachers, administrators, and out-of-school activity coordinators, form the first pillar. The IDEA teams will receive professional development and learn technical content through a 10-day summer institute at the U of I and will participate in a year-round networked improvement community to share best practices and more effectively provide high-quality STEM opportunities for their students.

The IDEA teams will launch STEM clubs at their sites as the second pillar. These clubs will provide engineering design and project-based experiences during the school year while encouraging diverse groups of students to participate. The third pillar is scholarships for underrepresented middle school and high school students to attend immersive summer enrichment with peers from across the nation through the U of I’s College of Engineering’s Worldwide Youth in Science and Engineering (WYSE) summer camps and the University of Illinois Extension (4H) Illini Summer Academy.

Lorenzo Baber, an associate professor in the School of Education at Iowa State University and former Illinois faculty member, will conduct educational research on student self-efficacy, while researchers at NAPE will explore changes to the knowledge, attitudes, behaviors, and practices of IDEA team members. Luisa Rosu, director of the Illinois Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Education Initiative at the U of I will perform internal evaluation and assessment and assist the external evaluator, Ayesha Boyce, at UNC Greensboro, in collecting data on program effectiveness. Irfan Ahmad, Executive Director for the Carle Illinois College of Medicine Health Maker Lab and College of Engineering Interdisciplinary Initiatives based at the Micro and Nanotechnology Laboratory, serves as the industry liaison. Representatives from Chip Energy, Henneman Engineering, ISS Inc., and the Center for Advanced Research in Drying will talk with the IDEA teams about engineering workforce needs. National Instruments will provide LabVIEW software for STEM club activities. 
Other partners in the project include several career and technical education consortia in Illinois and U of I staff from the Offices of undergraduate admissions, inclusion and intercultural relations, engineering career services, and engineering pathways, advising, and mentoring programs.

“Students from under-resourced schools and communities often miss out on high quality, authentic STEM instruction and content in formal and in informal settings. I’m most excited by the potential for this grant to work on narrowing this opportunity gap, both within school and in out-of-school settings,” said Lara Hebert, public engagement coordinator for the College of Engineering. “Usually grants pursue one or the other. Considering the connectedness of these settings makes this study unique. Ultimately, the goal is to show that this is an effective model that can be sustained through private funding beyond the three years of the NSF grant. If successful, we plan to share the model beyond Illinois.”

Like many schools, the University of Illinois College of Engineering is making strides when it comes to promoting diversity, but the belief is that in order to make more significant progress within admission and job placement, grassroots efforts are needed to increase diversity in the student applicant pool.

“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.”

"There is also important theory in the literature about critical mass and a student’s sense of belonging,” Goddard said. “The idea is that a student feels they belong when about 20-30 percent of the class reflects their demographics. However, it’s also about building an inclusive welcoming community for students.”

“Because students, counselors, educators, and after-school program leaders will be engaging with the College of Engineering in a coherent way for a year and more,” Hebert stated, “I’m hopeful that these relationships will grow into ongoing opportunities for partnerships focused on formal and informal opportunities for authentic, cutting edge STEM experiences—getting kids excited about content that they might not experience otherwise.”

Over the course of three years, the research team will partner with 24 schools – 20 high schools and 4 middle schools which feed into one of the 20 high schools. Each year, a cohort of eight schools will enter the program, starting this summer. Goddard indicates they are targeting schools in Chicago, East St. Louis, and locally and that there are several schools interested.

“We want the schools to also understand what sorts of policies and professional practices influence opportunities for students and to reflect on strategies they are currently using to address these issues,” Goddard said. “Our research goal is to figure out the synergistic effects of a team of school stakeholders as STEM advocates and year-round programming on creating an atmosphere that is conducive to getting more students excited about pursing STEM majors and careers.”

Share this story

This story was published April 5, 2019.