The University of Massachusetts Amherst
University of Massachusetts Amherst

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College of Engineering Collaborates on Summer STEM Program for Disadvantaged High School Students

Paula Rees

Paula Rees

This summer the College of Engineering collaborated with the Colleges of Social and Behavioral Sciences (SBS), Information and Computer Science (lead), and Natural Sciences, along with the Massenberg Foundation, on a one-week program to engage and excite 16 students from high schools in Massachusetts and New Jersey about science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). The educational program was funded by SBS alumnus Michael Weir and his wife Mirian, who, along with two of their daughters, spent all or part of the week here with the students supporting the program.

The focus was on providing mentoring and support to disadvantaged students. Assistant Dean Paula Rees, head of the Engineering Community, Equity, and Inclusion (CEI) Hub, led the students through a series of computational and mathematical brainteasers as a warm-up each morning.

In addition, transportation graduate students Alyssa Ryan and Francis Tainter introduced the students to transportation engineering, helping the students apply physics to the design of roadway curves. The students also visited engineering’s Arabella Human Performance Lab and learned how research to improve young and older driver safety is conducted.

The program was geared towards students who might not otherwise have exposure to opportunities in the STEM areas of study or understand their importance and relevancy in their high school education. The overall goal of the camp was to build student confidence in STEM abilities, support self-advocacy and resiliency, and help students identify academic and personal goals. 

“Our vision is to create a fun and supportive environment in which students can explore STEM and make connections between their high school curriculum and applications in degrees and careers they may choose to pursue,” said Rees. “The schedule for the week was designed to include a mix of individual and group activities as well as opportunities to absorb basic concepts and then apply them through hands-on mini-projects.”

As Rees noted, “The students were treated as college students in that they were free to respectfully step out of the classroom for bathroom breaks as needed, rather than hardwiring such breaks into the schedule. They stayed on-campus and were responsible for getting themselves to class on time, returning to the dorms, and completing homework.”

The bulk of the course was taught at the College of Information and Computer Science, providing students space to spread out for group projects, but students were also introduced to the team-based classrooms in the Integrated Learning Center. The program also included visits to research labs across campus to inspire the students and allow them to see connections with what they learn in the classroom.

The 16 participants came from Holyoke High School North and South, the Science and Technology High School in Springfield, Springfield Central High School, and high schools in Morristown and Jersey City, New Jersey. All students were nominated by their guidance counselors and schools to participate. The schools were asked to identify promising students potentially interested in STEM. The attendees included a mix of races and genders, but was predominately students of color. All were rising 10th graders.

As Rees summarized, “We aim to meet the students where they are in terms of skills, interests, and needs.”

To support this, the coordinators conducted a needs assessment of students’ math skills and areas of interest prior to the start of the institute and adjusted the programming accordingly. The schedule was designed to help build student strength and connection with data analysis, algebra, and basic trigonometry. There were also opportunities to explore career opportunities in computer science, engineering, and biology. (October 2019)