Many “Pathways” to STEM

12_BrainEducationDayMar10_2012

The question that lecturer Aida Behmard ’15 posed to her class in the basement of Leet Oliver Memorial Hall at last Saturday’s Resonance, a one-day science outreach program, was admittedly a tad “philosophical” for high schoolers: why do supermassive black holes exist, anyway? But when Behmard turned from the blackboard to face her students a moment later, it was to a roomful of raised hands.

The hand that had flown up fastest belonged to 10th grader Joseph Casarella.

“I’m not really learning anything in school about black holes,” he said later. “I definitely would want to find out more.”

At Resonance, Casarella, who wants to be a physicist, was in good company. When planning Resonance, Synapse, the outreach arm of the Yale Scientific Magazine, tapped the database of participants at Yale’s Pathways to Science initiative. Begun in 2009, Pathways aims to increase interest in STEM fields among students in New Haven, West Haven, and Amity district middle and high schools by running programs and coordinating others that expose students to cutting-edge science beyond what they would see in school.

Many universities offer science outreach programs. But Claudia Merson, director of public school partnerships at the Yale Office of New Haven and State Affairs (ONHSA), which manages Pathways, said Pathways is unique: to her knowledge, it is the only initiative in the country that keeps track of the students that its programs attract, from their first entry into any Pathways event through college graduation — a feature Merson dubs “No Child Left Unknown.”

In the years to come, the still-nascent Pathways will have collected enough data on student participation to study the effects of outreach programs on students’ post-high school careers, and better tailor the programs to students’ needs and preferences. The database, which currently comprises around 950 students, has already proved useful as a recruitment tool for events like Resonance, and for matching students to internships in which their database profiles suggest they might do well.

Maria Parente, coordinator of community programs in science at ONHSA, said that prior to Pathways, outreach programs at Yale were “beautiful flowers everywhere, but [with] no garden:” while members of the Yale scientific community were interested in running their own outreach programs, there was no coordination among those programs or means by which to measure their impact. With Pathways, Parente said, those scientists are able to work smarter, and more efficiently.

“Pathways just makes sense,” she added. “It makes sense for the community, the district, the students, and everybody at Yale. It’s letting us get to know kids, find the holes in our programs, and make better decisions. It’s exciting, because it’s working.”

 

THE FIRST STEPS

There are many paths to becoming a Pathways student. Some students apply after being nominated by a science or math teacher. Others enter Pathways automatically as part of a Pathways core program like EVOlutions, an after-school enrichment program run through the Peabody Museum, or SCHOLAR, a free, two-week summer science residency program held on campus.

Students can also effectively nominate themselves. Parente uses the database to find students who have attended five or more events and invites them to apply based on their demonstrated interest.

“It’s more than just the high achievers,” Merson said. “It’s also the kid who stays too long at the sand and water table in class, or the kid who takes apart the vacuum cleaner for fun. It’s all sorts of people who are scientists.”

More than half of all Pathways students are eligible for free and reduced-price school lunches, and half would be the first in their families to graduate from college. Racially, the program is representative of its students’ hometowns in New Haven and surrounding cities: 31 percent of students are white, 25 percent are black and 21 percent are Hispanic.

But all participants assume a common identity at the Pathways kickoff. This year, as Yale undergraduates, graduate students, professors, staff and families looked on from tables in Commons, 285 students joined Pathways and became the youngest faces of Yale’s scientific community.

“Their stereotypes about what Yale scientists and Yale students are like just break down,” Parente said. “They learn that [scientists’] laboratory doors are literally open to them at some of these events. It’s easy for them to see that volunteers are there because they want to be there for them, and that’s a great thing to feel.”

 

CHARTING A COURSE

Merson said that once students join Pathways, they are “bombarded” with opportunities as numerous as the topics they will soon be studying. The website ONSHA, dedicated exclusively to science outreach at Yale, features 25 programs — Girls Science Investigations, the Yale University Physics Olympics and the science offerings at Yale Splash, to name a few — all of which are coordinated by Pathways.

“Giving back is practically a part of scientists’ DNA,” Merson said. “But they have day jobs — research to do, and classes to teach. What [Pathways] does is make giving back easy for them.”

Science on Saturdays, a daylong program run by Synapse that holds science demonstrations and lectures by Yale and guest professors three times a semester, is among the programs that has tapped into Pathways to expand its reach.

Synapse chair Naaman Mehta ’16 said Pathways worked with her to plan Science on Saturdays, helping to coordinate administrative details and advertise the program to its student database. While Synapse was planning Resonance, Pathways used its database again to help Mehta and her team recruit students from the local community. It worked — last Saturday, students who had come to know Mehta through Science on Saturdays recognized her behind the sandwich platters, wearing a Resonance T-shirt.

SCHOLAR, a Pathways-run initiative that Merson calls its “signature” flagship program, selects 120 applicants from students enrolled at Hill Career Regional High School in New Haven and the database of Pathways students. SCHOLAR students live on campus for free during their freshman, sophomore and junior summers, where they take intensive science classes and receive training and mentorship in the sciences from Yale students and faculty.

But SCHOLAR, begun prior to Pathways in 1998, might be as much a beneficiary of Pathways as it was a catalyst for its development. Like Pathways does now, it kept records on its admitted students not only during their time in SCHOLAR, but until after their graduation from college.

What those records reveal, Merson said, is “extraordinary:” Approximately 75 percent of SCHOLAR students graduated from college within six years, compared with the only 23 percent from New Haven public high schools at large.

Most importantly, Merson said, 39 percent of those students persisted in STEM majors, compared with a national average of 15 percent. Merson said that the statistics demonstrate why longitudinal tracking is important: to measure the impact of SCHOLAR and programs like it, it is necessary to look at whether students’ interest in the sciences continues after the program ends.

Parente said the larger Pathways database will be ready in about two years. But short-term studies using the database have been just as useful to the Pathways team. With the database as it is, Parente has been able to evaluate, among many other aspects of Pathways’ offerings, the type of programs students prefer and potential barriers to participation.

Although black and Hispanic males have become members of Pathways, Parente has noticed that they have lower rates of participation in Pathways programs than other students. She plans to use the database to find out why, and is currently in conversation with William Genova ’15, a member of the Latino fraternity Lambda Upsilon Lambda, about starting programs that bring the Latino Pathways community closer.

As more and more students join Pathways, its impact will become even clearer. Merson said Pathways will use the results to improve existing programs, and chart courses for new programs that more precisely match what students want to see.

“In this day and age, there are few opportunities where it’s just win, win, win,” Merson said. “[Pathways] is a win for the institution of science, it’s a win for the community, and it’s a win for the future. We’re helping the kids with the fire in their bellies, [and] we’re helping to create the next generation of scientists.”

 

PAVING THE FUTURE

This year, Merson and Parente wanted to increase the number of Pathways students interning with Yale researchers. By using the database to match students to positions in which they are likely to succeed, Parente said Pathways has now placed over double the number of students in previous years at internships.

For Parente, affording students in the community the opportunity to participate in cutting-edge science is critical.

“Just knowing and seeing what research is is so powerful,” she said. “[Yale] is a machine of research creating the things that these students are going to be living through, and we’re giving students the resources to explore them. It shows the community that it’s not us versus them, it’s just us.”

Merson said that interest in further expanding Yale’s science outreach offerings has been on the rise since Pathways began. Given a swelling national need for STEM professionals, those offerings will become all the more significant if they can make real their participants’ dreams to one day pursue careers in the sciences. It is an evaluation they will be able to make, in time.

Mehta said she plans to hold Resonance again next year, hoping to give students the opportunities to get excited about science that she never had in high school.

“The purpose of being in an environment with so many resources is being able to share them,” she said. “It’s not just you that benefits, it’s the whole community.”

Tenth grader Paris Mceachem, a Pathways student since middle school, said she talked about nanotechnology and cancer in her Resonance classes — just what the doctor ordered for this budding pediatrician.

“I feel like I can do things and be the one to make things happen,” she said afterwards. “It makes you want to be curious.”

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