• Podcast
  • Aug 10 2021

UK, Fayette County Schools' STEM Pipeline Program

As summer camp season wraps up and a new school year begins, this “Research Made Possible” podcast shares how University of Kentucky researchers across campus are targeting science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education. 

The STEM Through Authentic Research and Training (START) program at UK is partnering with Fayette County Public Schools to create a unique pipeline to increase 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. He says that because these demographics are underrepresented in the STEM professions, START will target underrepresented groups by offering real-world research experiences beginning in elementary school and continuing through graduate school. 

The podcast features the START team: Luke Bradley, Margaret Mohr-Schroeder (professor of STEM education and associate dean in the College of Education), Fara Williams (director of the Kentucky-West Virginia Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation program), Julie Bradley (assistant director of academic coaching in the Department of Transformative Learning) and Anthony Sinai (professor in the Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Molecular Genetics in the UK College of Medicine).

Research reported in this podcast was supported by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences of the National Institutes of Health under Award Number R25GM132961. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.

VO: In this podcast we’ll be exploring a program focused on STEM, which is short for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. The program is named START an acronym for STEM Through Authentic Research and Training. It is a five-year project funded by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, part of the National Institutes of Health. The goal is to create a pipeline to STEM careers for first-generation college students, traditionally underrepresented minorities, disabled students and women. First, we’ll hear from Luke Bradley, Director of the START Program and Chellgren Endowed Professor in the UK College of Medicine.


LUKE BRADLEY: OK, so in the STEM professions, there are certain demographics that are underrepresented in the workforce. And so there's a big focus and push to help increase those numbers as we go along. And so the pipeline is really starting at elementary school and working its way all the way through graduate school. And along that pipeline, there's many leaks that happen. And so we'll see drop-offs at each level.


MARGARET MOHR-SCHROEDER: Margaret Mohr-Schroeder, and I'm a professor of STEM education and associate dean in the College of Education. So the research shows-- and we've all seen it-- that underrepresented populations, which does include females and then blacks, indigenous, and other peoples of color, are underrepresented in general in the STEM populations. And so what we've been focusing on is why is that and then how can we disrupt that system so that they can become a regular part of the STEM pipeline and have the same access and opportunity for STEM careers, STEM interest in general. And that really begins early on in their educational careers. And we know that our communities, especially our communities of color, often don't have the same kinds of opportunities that more affluent populations, for example, might have. How can we provide opportunities for families and students to come to campus, to have rich experiences. And really not just focusing on the STEM content, but really getting their hands dirty and wet and just really getting to play, engage in that STEM material even without realizing it’s STEM.

So we started STEM camp, actually my husband and I back in 2010. And it started at Jesse Clark Middle School with Fayette County Public Schools, but we wanted to expand it, expand opportunity and access for the students. So we decided to bring it on to UK's campus in 2012. And so it's been here ever since. It is a cooperative effort between the College of Education, College of Engineering, and College of Arts and Sciences, although we have other colleges that help out as well. But it is a five-day, day camp experience where students in elementary and middle school and high school come onto campus to get positive, hands on, authentic experiences with STEM.  And we thought that pairing START with the STEM camps would be a really nice pipeline. Because really we're trying to build a STEM ecosystem so that we can think of opportunities for our elementary, middle, high school students on into post-secondary education and really begin to round out those experiences and really provide students with a bunch of different opportunities that weren't available to us when we were growing up, and in general weren't really available here in the Lexington and Central Kentucky area prior to about 10 years ago.  


VO: The START program’s goal is to provide authentic, hands-on research experiences for students. To do that, the University of Kentucky is working in partnership with the Fayette County Public Schools’ Academies of Lexington.


LUKE BRADLEY: So this would be Bryan Station, Frederick Douglass, and Tates Creek High Schools here in Lexington. And STEAM Academy is our initial pilot partner. And so it's really from that early relationship that it's now grown into this. So our access to students here in Lexington is actually pretty sizable. This isn't just for students. The idea is that we want to also provide authentic learning experiences for teachers in science, the high school teachers and middle school teachers in particular--with the idea that many of these teachers have probably not been in a lab, or at least in an academic research lab. And they will have an experience. They're not going to be full-time in it. But they'll at least gain an appreciation of what is going on in a research lab here at the University of Kentucky. And in so doing, we want them to feel like they're a part of the science community. They're not just teaching it, but know people in the community that are practicing the science. And that can be very important for many different reasons. But one would be a student has-- "hey, I have a question on a certain topic." "Well, go look on the web." It's like, "I know somebody. I can put you in touch with somebody."


VO: The START grant will allow the College of Education to grow existing STEM teacher training programs, including one supported by the National Science Foundation’s Robert Noyce teacher grant.


MARGARET MOHR-SCHROEDER: We give them different opportunities that they may not have experienced in their teacher education program or may not have experienced as a student themselves growing up and help them fall in love with the content that they're teaching and just give them new ideas to explore that they hopefully then will take back into their classrooms. And with our focus on STEM, we focused a lot on that integration piece. We know that teachers are required to teach the particular content areas in the classroom, but if we can give them a little bit more exposure to just outside of their particular content area so that they can integrate little snippets from outside into their work, then we think it's a really nice real-world application and really helps the students and the teachers themselves see the bigger picture of how STEM fits into everything.  

We have a couple of different grants where our teachers are spread out all throughout the state, and actually the central Midwest region of the United States. And so we partner with them and we do, our most popular is a summer workshop where we really focus on place-based education, meaning that we actually use the Kentucky State Park system. And we pick a State Park out each summer. And we bring them for three days and two nights, and we immerse them in hands-on STEM activities where we have pedagogical training integrated within them. And we try to incorporate the themes of the area in which we're in.  

So we'll be looking to expand our teacher population in terms of who we reach, especially our Fayette County Public school teachers who are our partners in this grant and expanding this opportunity for them each summer.  We often find that students, when they don't like something they just turn it off. And sometimes some students are good about turning it off but still completing the work or jumping through the hoops, and other times the students are turned off from something. I mean it's just something they put aside and move on. And in society today STEM literacy is a critical component no matter what field you end up going into. And so really thinking about how can we create these opportunities for students to see STEM in a different light, to increase their STEM literacy so that they do feel a sense of belonging and do have some identity in STEM. And the mentoring is key there because we can connect students to quality professionals--to STEM professionals who might have had a similar path to them-- who want to really work and talk with the students. Kind of break down those barriers of what it really is like to be in a STEM career or a STEM professional.  


LUKE BRADLEY: A lab is like a family, right? It's a small family. And you got someone that's very senior-- me-- and then you got students that are learning with you. And you learn from each other, right? They become siblings, if you will. But it's that near-peer mentoring that really builds a strong foundation, not just academically or scientifically. It's also building their confidence, their support. All of a sudden, they gain an identity, right? They gain an identity in the lab. They gain an identity in their field. And you can just see that confidence growing. And so to see a student that's starting out very shy, apprehensive, intimidated, and then three weeks later they're wearing a lab coat and they feel like they belong and they're having fun-- I mean, that's the best. And then you get students thinking, "I can do this. There's a student that's a year or two older than me taking these classes. I work side by side with them. I could do that." And so for retention, through college, they will feel like they belong here. And that's a big part of student success, to get them all the way through. And that's what we want, ultimately.

We're partnered with the LSAMP program here on campus. That's the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation program. Now, what the LSAMP program does is it's not only providing academic enrichment, but also provides a network of professional development along the way and opportunities that our students would be involved with. And then many of those will serve as our near-peer mentors.


FARA WILLIAMS: I am Fara Williams, Director of the Kentucky-West Virginia Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation program, or LSAMP for short. So we are an alliance of 10 institutions-- seven here in Kentucky, three in West Virginia. We are one of over 50 alliances in the country, and we are sponsored by the National Science Foundation. And we support students who are majoring in science, technology, engineering, and math. Our main focuses are undergraduate research experiences, graduate school preparation in hopes that they will go beyond the bachelor's degree. So Dr. Bradley is one of our faculty mentors. And he came up with the idea of expanding research to high school. And it made sense to focus the START program on underrepresented populations, which would then qualify them for the LSAMP program once they get to college. So it's a natural synergy in that we can use our current scholars to be peer mentors for the high school students, and then we can also recruit the high school students as LSAMP participants once they get to college.  

Several years ago, I read an article that said that current college students were training for jobs that did not yet exist. And I think that's more so today because everything is just progressing so quickly. Often I get freshmen saying that they want to be a doctor. But they have one vision of what that means, and really there's like 10 or 20 visions of what a doctor is. And so exposing them to the possibilities earlier on helps them to make decisions and really drive their career choices, so that ultimately what they do is better not only for themselves and their satisfaction in their job, but then also for the world. Because when you love what you do you do it so much better than when you're doing it just for a paycheck. I hope the biggest impact is those who are participating are able to really think and dream beyond what they thought they wanted to do. And be comfortable asking questions and comfortable asking people about their career choices and their college choices. And really thinking and making informed decisions, rather than just, “Oh, this is all I know so this is what I'm going to do.”


VO: START is partnering with Academic Coaching in the Department of Transformative Learning to train the near-peer mentors. 


LUKE BRADLEY: These would be students that would be undergraduate researchers or maybe graduate students, to work one-on-one with these students. And the students also will be prepared to meet with those support services to learn study habits, growth mindset, and how to be a good college student, to feel like they belong on campus.


JULIE BRADLEY: My name is Julie Bradley, and I am the assistant director of academic coaching in the Department of Transformative Learning. Academic coaching is a no-stress, no-judgment way to work with students by asking open-ended, nonjudgmental questions that let them guide their lives towards their goals. And one of the things that we've done in this project is we have taken students who already are on campus, the LSAMP students, and we're pairing them with students in the high school realm and giving them access to things that they wouldn't normally have access to in college. And the most important piece of this to me is how do we empower these students to feel like they belong here-- that they actually can make a difference, they can actually be successful in STEM, and give them those experiences that build their confidence and move them forward towards graduation?  And so through our program, we are intentionally training the LSAMP students to work with the high school students. We're also training the high school students to participate in the middle and elementary school STEM camps in the summer. And we're giving them the skill set that's so important in mentoring and in coaching. We're sitting students down and saying, to be successful in college, you need academic support, wellness support, and access to opportunity. This access-to-opportunity piece is so important for underrepresented students, because traditionally in higher ed, they have not had equal access as maybe a white student would have to different resources. And so we're really zoning in and teaching them to think about this model on their own, so like a three-legged stool. And if that student goes out in the world and they're like, things aren't working that well for me-- what is missing?-- they can narrow it down to do I need academic, wellness, or access to opportunity, and that can help guide them through our resource system. There are lots and lots of right ways to do something. But there are definitely, within that realm of right ways to do something, wrong ways for each individual person. So each student gets their own individual plan based on what they know about themselves, what their strengths and their skill sets are, to get them on a path to their goals. No one likes to be told what to do. And that's why coaching is so effective. We're not telling these students what to do. We're just giving them the opportunity to get clarity and find the right steps for them. The most exciting part of this project for me personally is that I truly believe in this mission. I believe in access to opportunity for all students. I believe that it's not accessible right now for certain students, through no fault of their own. And if I can play a role in this in supporting my colleagues who are underrepresented and providing the access to these students, then I want to support them. And that's what I see my role is in this program.  


ANTHONY SINAI: I'm Anthony Sinai. I'm a Professor in the Department of Microbiology here at the College of Medicine.  And where my function in this program is is to serve somewhat as a coordinator to match students with people of their interests, come up with programs that are going to be relatable to them, but at the same time give them content well beyond what they would typically get in a school environment. And to do this in a way that also integrates the teachers that they have so that this is sort of an ongoing process. So I look at this a little bit from the standpoint of my background in infectious diseases. And when we look at infectious diseases, you have a good guy, as in the person getting infected. And of course the bad guy, which is the virus-- in this case COVID. Now, it's particularly acute in the context of COVID where there's a lot of issues of vaccine hesitancy, a lot of questions about what causes it, what doesn't cause it. A lot of misinformation there. And so a lot of what we are thinking about in developing these programs is to focus on questions that relate to the pandemic, but bring them to a level where students can not only understand them, but can build off of it into broader questions in STEM, in understanding everything from science, technology, medicine, and mathematics as well. And so a lot of what we are actually trying to do is to really come up with modules and units that are relatable and almost like a story-type format, so they don't actually realize they are learning STEM while they are actually learning STEM. And hopefully this will trigger a level of interest that goes beyond just looking at a textbook or looking up a particular website.


VO: One of the innovative ways the START team is approaching classroom learning is through a segment called “Ask the Professor."


ANTHONY SINAI: where we would have the students actually come up with particular questions of interest to them which would then be relayed to myself or other faculty members. And then we can set up a Zoom call with an entire classroom where we have a frank exchange of whatever topic it is. And by having the students actually drive the questions that interest them and putting us on the spot to come up with a way to present it in a relatable way without getting too deep in the weeds, but at the same time recognizing the trees, it's, I think, an interesting challenge for me as well as an educator to find that particular balance and deal with an audience that typically doesn't deal with. So the teachers are actually the key gatekeepers in this particular process. And because they have contact with the students, they can actually identify the students who would benefit the most from it or gain the most moving forward.


MARGARET MOHR-SCROEDER: We got awarded the START Grant. We had some planning time, which was amazing and wonderful, and right when we're getting ready to implement our new ideas and bring on a bunch of students on the campus COVID hit and really threw us for a loop. But then we took a big step back and we're like, OK, well the world is moving on regardless of the situation that we're in and this is an even bigger time that we need to make sure that the opportunities and access to high-quality STEM experiences is here. Otherwise, you know, what are we doing and who else are we going to be leaving behind? And so really thinking about that big pivot that we had to make and thinking about virtual STEM experiences, virtual experiences and connecting students to STEM professionals. And so sometimes that means us masking up and going into a laboratory with an iPad and asking questions and getting that experience, and sometimes that means asking our partner Space Tango to think differently about their partnership with us.


LUKE BRADLEY: And so what we've done is we've started to do virtual lab tours. And Space Tango, being our outside partner, offered to do the first lab tour of their business. So Space Tango is a local STEM business, here in Lexington, Kentucky, that takes experiments designed here on Earth and runs them, automatically installed into the International Space Station. And so with Space Tango in this region, or in our backyard, these experiments that are done on the Space Station are in the field of exomedicine. So can we use microgravity to find the cures for diseases or solutions to our technology problems here on Earth? The importance of Space Tango in an outside partner is for those students that are in their first generation of going into higher education or into STEM, to see a pathway that there's a lot of different options for them to get involved in this career. The virtual tour that we had actually was quite engaging. Students were asking questions throughout, which I thought, I wasn't expecting that.

So I see us, in the future, continuing our virtual experiences, gaining interest in the community, working with providing more opportunities to interact with students. We've been developing some modules that could be used in classes. Graduate students from my Department of Neuroscience, they did a great job doing a demonstration on the brain, to students at Tates Creek High School, which went over really well. So I can see us doing more of these outreach activities, which we weren't anticipating on doing. But the interest is there. And I think, after COVID, I still think we'll be doing these kind of things probably by Zoom or virtually, because it's a low barrier. But as we grow, we'll have students more on campus getting that really valuable one-on-one interaction.


MARGARET MOHR-SCROEDER: 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 I really think again, that speaks to UK and the community in the STEM community that we've built here. This is my 15th year here at UK and we've been doing STEM grants and work ever since I came here. And I think this NIH START Grant has really been a pinnacle piece in terms of bringing all of those parts and pieces together. And I think it's a new beginning for UK in terms of thinking bigger and large scale on a lot of the STEM work that we do.  


ANTHONY SINAI: I think the biggest impact it has on the community is by demystifying science and demystifying STEM at the level of people who are going to be the next generation. Being able to really connect, particularly in this environment where we are dealing with a global pandemic, where knowledge and science literacy are absolutely essential to understand our day-to-day life. If we can actually start at the grassroots by impacting individuals who are at a very formative stage in their own development as people and their development of understanding and logic and figuring out how the world really works and provide them a framework with which to actually understand the world around them.


JULIE BRADLEY: And the long-term goal of this is to have a diverse and inclusive representation of people, in Higher Ed, out in the world. And the more we do that, the more students are going to be drawn to that. And it's going to make us all better. The more diversity and inclusion we have, especially in the sciences, is just going to make this world a better place.