Outreach Key to Increasing STEM Student Population

06/24/2014 02:34 pm ET | Updated Aug 23, 2014

I eagerly await the opening of the City College Center for Discovery and Innovation, a 200,000-square-foot facility on our south campus that will house laboratories and offices for our top researchers. The grand opening, scheduled for the fall, will cap a remarkable year for science and engineering at The City College of New York that has seen our students earn seven National Science Foundation graduate research fellowships, seven NIST summer fellowships and three Salk scholarships, plus numerous other honors and accolades.

While I am excited about our students' success and the opportunities that await them once our new state-of-the-art facility is operational, I am also concerned about the dearth of students who want to major in the STEM disciplines - science, technology, engineering and mathematics - especially women and underrepresented minorities.

Despite efforts to raise interest, the number of high school students wanting to enter the STEM fields has declined from 2009 to 2013, according to U.S. News and World Report. The magazine also reported that women comprised just 28 percent of the science and engineering workforce in 2010, while African Americans, Hispanics, American Indians and Alaska Natives represented just 10 percent.

Ironically, STEM-related occupations are expected to grow 1.7 times faster than non-STEM jobs between 2008 and 2018. Having fewer people preparing for careers in fields with the best job prospects poses a drain on our economy and threatens the United States' long-term competitiveness.

Outreach by colleges to middle school and high school students can help bring supply and demand closer to equilibrium. An example at City College is the unique project-based integrated STEM learning model created by the NOAA-CREST (Cooperative Remote Sensing Science and Technology) Center. It uses a holistic learning approach to instill college readiness and STEM motivation among high school students, especially students of color and in underrepresented communities.

The center, which receives funding from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, focuses on all aspects of remote sensing technology to help better understand, predict changes to and protect the Earth's atmosphere and oceans. It increases the nation's STEM talent pool by recruiting and training students at the undergraduate, masters and doctoral levels in NOAA-related sciences.

Its outreach efforts, which include participation in science street fairs, summer camps for middle school students, school fairs and science enrichment and immersion seminars, have reached more than 3,000 students.

One of these initiatives, the Summer High School Internship Program (SHIP), begun in 2007, provides a six-week paid internship where students learn to do computer programming in the morning and work with a research group in the afternoon, mentored by a graduate student, senior scientist or faculty member. At the end of the program, participants make oral or poster presentations on their research.

Last summer, 18 students from 14 different high schools participated in SHIP. Out of that cohort, five enrolled at City College for their bachelor's degrees and some of them continue to conduct research with NOAA-CREST faculty. Thanks to a new grant through the Pinkerton Foundation, the program will expand and serve 35 students this summer - almost double. SHIP also will be renamed High School Initiative in Remote Sensing of the Earth Systems Science and Engineering (HIRES).

Many educators and counselors believe middle school may be the best age to reach students and kindle their interest in the STEM disciplines. By the time they reach high school, it may be too late, especially if they are struggling with math.

That is why NOAA-CREST partnered this year with the City College Academy of the Arts, a Grade 6 - 12 public school in Washington Heights, to create a Bridge to College seminar series in Earth systems science and engineering. For five weeks, eighth graders came to our campus for weekly seminars where senior CREST scientists and postdoctoral fellows engaged them in hands-on demonstrations and learning activities related to water quality and satellite data analysis.

Outreach programs that engage students through hands-on and inquiry-based activities, field trips and other tools make science exciting and fun. They fill an educational gap in a test-oriented environment where it often is hard for teachers to generate excitement for science in the classroom.

There is much more to the STEM disciplines than memorization of formulas and mind-numbing repetitive calculations. These fields are on the front line of addressing the most significant challenges facing society, from climate change to environmental health and diseases to next-generation computing and communication technology.

When we expose students early on to what STEM professionals do, the more likely they will be interested in becoming scientists, engineers, physicians, and more. Imagine how many more STEM majors we could produce if outreach programs like those offered by NOAA-CREST were available to schools throughout urban areas like New York.