How can we build the STEM research pipeline, and what does it take to create STEM career pathways for high school students? Thanks to the University of Central Florida’s leadership in the fields of engineering, science, and education, students throughout central Florida can gain unique experiences in a variety of science-related fields. One of the newest partnerships between UCF and area school districts offered six Seminole County high school students, who were nominated by their school principals, an opportunity to work with six UCF undergraduate Fellows (under NSF’s I-Cubed UCF program) in campus labs. The high school students, or STEM Scholars, worked in several different science labs on campus weekly over the course of the spring 2015 semester.

Dr. Parveen Wahid, professor of electrical engineering in the College of Engineering & Computer Science, and Dr. Vicky Zygouris-Coe, professor of reading education in the College of Education and Human Performance, collaborated to form the pilot program titled, Mentoring Future UCF STEM Scholars, which concluded this semester. This project was supported through UCF’s I-Cubed (Innovation through Institutional Integration) project. The goal of the collaboration between SCPS and UCF was to initiate awareness among high school students of their future prospects in pursuing STEM degrees, and the types of skills and knowledge needed to succeed in those programs.

Drs. Wahid and Zygouris-Coe began this inaugural semester of the program, establishing as their goals to: (a) create a “readiness” for university-level science/engineering education; (b) engage high school students in authentic experiences that would best inform, prepare, and motivate them to pursue STEM disciplines and careers; and (c) increase their knowledge about STEM fields, goals, and activities, while helping them learn about the thinking practices of STEM professionals.

While an electrical engineering professor and a reading education professor may not seem the likeliest pairing at first, their work and collaboration seeks to directly address national shortage of STEM researchers in the US.

Dr. Zygouris-Coe’s research interests in teaching and learning in discipline-specific ways helped her conceive the partnership as a way to help high school students better understand the dispositions and habits of mind necessary to learn and conduct research in STEM disciplines. “STEM-related content knowledge is a must for a career in STEM fields,” Dr. Coe tells us. “Students need to experience authentic and varied experiences in the scientific inquiry process, and gain an appreciation for how STEM researchers read, write, think, problem-solve, create, evaluate, and share knowledge. Collaborative inquiry, habits of mind, asking good questions, critical reading, and thinking about data matter in STEM learning. This project focused on meaningfully engaging high school students in college-level, authentic STEM problem-solving—you can’t bottle these experiences up! They are invaluable for college and career readiness.”

Dr. Wahid tells us that “This project provided a unique opportunity for high school students to work in research labs on campus on a weekly basis. Such a hands-on approach, in a university setting, will help them widen their perspective about the STEM discipline and expose them to all aspects one encounters when working in a STEM field. The UCF undergraduate Fellows also got an excellent opportunity to explain their research to the school students, to discuss preparing for university life, and to form a great bond with their mentees.”

Several of the high school students who participated in the Mentoring Future UCF STEM Scholars program were generally interested in sciences, but mentioned that they are now considering them as major courses of study in college and future career options for them.

Nikhail from Oviedo High provided some specifics about his experience. “I got to go into a lab setting and do a lot of techniques that scientists actually do in the field today,” he told us. “And I got to interact with traditional science equipment. When you were little and you thought about being a scientist, you thought about beakers, you thought about test tubes, you thought about chemicals that you combine and pour together, and you thought about reactions. When I studied with Zaid (one of the UCF STEM Fellows) I actually got to witness a lot of that stuff and it was a great experience.”

Luke, a student at Lake Mary High, was already interested in the sciences and his experience with the program solidified that interest. “I wanted to learn more about STEM specifically; I think it’s really important overall that we try to get as many kids as possible to do something like this,” he said. “I’m just one of many students in my school and I had this opportunity, and it has been great. I don’t think there’s enough actual exposure to STEM for high school students. And I think that the university experience, coming down to UCF every week, is something really cool. Being integrated with the student body and getting to go into these different labs has been great.”

The UCF undergraduate students and program fellows who participated in this pilot program were part of the National Science Foundation’s I-Cubed program which, under the direction of PI Dr. Debra Reinhart, works to integrate research and education under the guidance of UCF STEM faculty. One of the goals of the program is to prepare students for STEM careers, and this pilot program with Seminole County Public Schools is an opportunity to engage and encourage students to enter these fields. SCPS administrators are currently working with Drs. Wahid and Zygouris-Coe to plan and expand the program for the upcoming academic year.

For more information about the Mentoring Future UCF STEM Scholars program, please contact Dr. Parveen Wahid or Dr. Vicky Zygouris-Coe.