Pre-college programs for students from communities underrepresented in STEM fields—primarily Black, Indigenous, and Latine—are successful at preparing those students to succeed in STEM fields in college. That success is clear to Alison Slinskey Legg, who has run pre-college biology programs for years. The challenge is to prove the programs’ effectiveness to the people and institutions whose decisions have major impacts on those programs and therefore students’ lives.
Developing data to prove that the programs work is now one of several projects Slinskey Legg oversees as the director of Pitt’s Broadening Equity in STEM (BE STEM) Center, a unit in the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences that supports STEM students from underrepresented groups. The center includes the STEM PUSH (Pathways for Underrepresented Students to Higher Education) Network, which is funded by the National Science Foundation’s NSF Includes initiative. STEM PUSH aims to leverage the power of pre-college STEM programs to boost college enrollment by underrepresented students, specifically in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math).
Also a teaching professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, Slinskey Legg wants to demonstrate that success empirically, while also creating data resources for pre-college STEM programs to improve.
“We believe that these experiences are preparing students to succeed in undergraduate STEM, but we have to prove it,” Slinskey Legg explains. “If you talk to anybody who runs one of these programs, we believe that our programs are impactful in students’ decisions to major in a STEM field and to persist in STEM in college. Although programs have looked at themselves in one-off reviews, there’s never been an effort where this has been done on a large scale, over a long time, to objectively demonstrate on a macro level that rigorous pre-college STEM programs have an effect on students persisting in STEM.”
A BE STEM research study is seeking to do just that. Led by David Boone, assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Informatics, the project is longitudinally tracking students who attended pre-college programs and ultimately went to college. The researchers are now analyzing outcomes and socioeconomic data on about 29,000 students in 37 programs spread across the country, and they soon will expand that cohort to 40,000 students.
Despite the complexities of tracking students over roughly a decade from high school into their college careers, the study has already produced eye-opening preliminary results.
“The retrospective analysis is challenging due to incongruent data-collection practices through time by different programs, but some patterns have already emerged,” says Boone. “One of the highlights is that over 80 percent of the Black, Latine, and Indigenous students across all of these programs are matriculating and persisting in STEM programs for more than a year as undergraduates at a higher education institution. That’s a big number.”
One purpose of the study is to provide data that programs can use for self-improvement. Although each program’s limited sample size is a challenge, the collective data represent many programs that have a similar number of students. The researchers hope that, over time, the project will be a resource for programs to learn from one another, empowering individual programs to gather and analyze data to improve their own programs. The Pitt study can provide data that the programs could not collect by themselves, given their limited resources.
Slinskey Legg looks to the study as one way to validate the academic performance she has seen from students.
“I would teach college-level first-year biology, and the stuff that my high school students were doing was well beyond what is expected in first-year biology. We try to make that case to admissions officers, and we keep hearing that these pre-college programs are so variable that they don’t know how to account for it, or that the program only provides a light exposure to the subject.”
She added that this study is really going to tell a different story. “Who do we tell this story to? Everybody. Go back to NSF, shout it to admissions departments and the funders of the programs: These programs are impactful and should be valued as such.”
Top: Enysah Roberts of the Hillman Academy pre-college STEM PUSH program working in the Cancer Center lab of Adrian Lee and Steffi Oesterreich
Below: Mary Valmont, associate executive director for Health Science Education at the Arthur Ashe Health Sciences Academy; Steven Jones, project manager, Hillman Academy
Photos courtesy Hillman Academy