Growing Up Without Limits: Mines students and alumni help K-12 students realize the opportunities of a STEM education

by | Jan 3, 2018 | Feature Stories, Winter 2018 | 0 comments

From a young age, children are often asked what they want to be when they grow up. Answers typically include something along the lines of firefighter, teacher or doctor. Less common are answers like chemist, physicist, web developer or mechanical engineer.

Yet, with the push to prioritize science, technology, engineering and math education earlier in schools, children are introduced to new fields and career paths, opening up the opportunities for their futures. STEM programs teach students not only about science and math, but also about the future of our society and economy. Such programs enable students to acquire more of the knowledge necessary to achieve success in today’s increasingly competitive job market and lead society in the future.

The Department of Commerce’s Economics and Statistics Administration projects STEM occupations will grow 8.9 percent between 2014 and 2024, compared to 6.4 percent projected growth for non-STEM occupations. Kindergarteners through seniors in high school will lead the charge in that growth, entering the workforce with a cross-disciplinary education and comprehensive skill set.

Mines has played a large part in encouraging this outreach to K-12 students and inspiring younger generations to pursue interests in STEM. From events geared toward supporting girls and young women to enter STEM fields to teaching a classroom of elementary students how math can be fun, Mines helps K-12 students achieve their highest potential and be whatever they want to be when they grow up.


Priming the Pipeline

Kate Smits’ time as an engineering student at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs sparked her passion for STEM education. The assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Mines had great professors and a great experience overall, but she never found that mentor, that woman engineer she could look to and say, “There’s someone who looks like me. I want to be like that.”

“I started looking into that discrepancy of why people are or aren’t going into engineering,” Smits said. “What the literature shows is there’s a critical age—middle school—where students either get really excited about STEM or their interest completely drops off. You either grab them or you don’t.”

When Smits received a National Science Foundation CAREER Award three years ago, it felt natural to dedicate the educational outreach portion of her grant to reaching potential future scientists and engineers on their own turf—a middle school classroom.

Twice a week, 12-15 Mines students visit College View Middle School, a public charter school in south Denver, for math and science tutoring and mentoring. Recently, that meant helping the middle schoolers go over their last test, on linear equations.

College View, part of the Denver School of Science and Technology network, is 85 percent minority and 90 percent low income. Students attend tutoring based on need, teacher requirement or interest.

“I hypothesized that if we introduced STEM to these students in a sustained way at a critical time in their development, they would be more likely to go into it,” Smits said. “A lot of what we do, the decisions that we make, are based on what we’re exposed to.”

In addition to tutoring, Mines students are encouraged to talk to the middle schoolers about careers, college and life. Some of the tutors are interested in pursuing a teaching career, while others like working with young people or just want a break from their own schoolwork.

“It’s a great way to give back to the STEM community. Education is so important, so any opportunity I can help out is important,” said Madison Webster, a sophomore studying chemical engineering. “I’ve really enjoyed it.”

Three years into a five-year grant, the tutoring program is already seeing results, too, Smits said. Students who have never tested at grade level on standardized math and science tests are passing for the first time, and their own survey data shows increasing confidence and interest in math and science.

“We talk a lot at Mines about preparing the pipeline. If we actually want to do that here in the state of Colorado, we need to start a whole lot sooner than the freshmen who walk through our door,” Smits said. “We need to start back when they’re a lot younger to be able to capture that incredible talent pool that’s not currently being captured.”

Giving back to a new generation

When John Osborne ’66 retired from the microchip industry after 35 years and moved to Twin Bridges, Montana, he and his wife decided to offer scholarships to local students interested in pursuing engineering or science in college. One of the scholarship winners, a young woman who had been valedictorian in high school and was interested in pursuing a career in biomedicine, was accepted into a prestigious university on the East Coast. However, despite her high SAT scores and a 4.0 grade-point average in high school, the young woman found herself falling behind in math, chemistry and physics and dropped out of the biomedical program in favor of a different discipline.

“I thought, if someone with that amount of intelligence and drive struggled with their collegiate career, then giving them a scholarship wasn’t as much help as looking at the infrastructure of the K-12 system itself,” Osborne said.

He read about a nonprofit organization called Project Lead the Way (PLTW) that empowers students to develop and apply in-demand, transportable skills by exploring real-world challenges and learning how to problem-solve and think critically. Inspired by the organization’s model to help prepare students for collegiate life and their professional careers, Osborne thought a STEM program might be a good fit at Twin Bridges School, a local K-12 school with a total of 225 students. The Twin Bridges school system is thought to be the smallest K-12 district in the U.S. known to have implemented the PTLW program at the elementary, middle and high school levels.

Osborne approached the school district’s superintendent, Chad Johnson, about starting up the program, and Johnson was immediately on board. “K-12 STEM education is important for all students, simply because it encourages and promotes critical thinking skills, problem-solving, asking questions and teamwork,” Johnson said. “These are the traits employers are seeking in today’s competitive global job market. Twin Bridges schools, especially due to their small size, need to provide the skills to our students so they can be competitive in whatever endeavor they choose upon graduation.”

After approval from the school board, the program was implemented in sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade classrooms. Students got hands-on experience with projects such as designing, building and testing orthopedic boots. The program also features a medical detective initiative and even a robotics section, which has enabled some students to participate in statewide robotics competitions.

Osborne was able to procure additional startup resources, including funding and program mentoring from Brewer Science, a microchip material company in Rolla, Missouri. Brewer Science has since offered a summer shadow/internship program to expose students to the working environment of an advanced technology company.

Students’ enthusiasm for the program enabled the program to expand to third- through fifth-graders and into high school in fall 2017. “We have been able to effectively implement the program at the middle school level then branch out this year to grades 3-12,” Johnson said. “This is an exciting time for Twin Bridges’ schools.”

At the beginning of the current school year, Osborne donated additional funds to purchase iPads for kindergarteners to use an app specifically designed to teach STEM to that age group. “The focus went from thinking that high school students would benefit the most from the program, to watching 6-year-olds learn shape recognition and associations,” he said.

“Everyone saw this as an approach to improve the educational quality and really engage in preparing students for collegiate life, as well as a more challenging industrial career,” Osborne said. “We provided some financial assistance and program oversight, but the teachers, administration, school board and students are really the enablers that made this initiative work. The number one thing is to make sure we’re doing an effective job.”

Helping girls fulfill their dreams

While the gender gap in higher education across the United States has become nearly nonexistent in 2017, there is still some catching up to do when it comes to women working in STEM fields. According to the National Girls Collaborative Project, an organization working to bring together organizations throughout the U.S. to inform and encourage girls to pursue careers in STEM, “Women make up half of the total U.S. college-educated workforce, but only 29 percent of the science and engineering workforce.”

To help fill this gap, Mines has several programs in place and hosts events to support young girls in kindergarten through 12th grade in their pursuits of STEM education and careers.

Mines’ outreach program, DECTech, is one of the most well-known programs at Mines designed to foster and continue girls’ interests in science and engineering through creative and interactive activities. DECTech—short for “Discover-Explore-Create Technology”—was originally implemented for 3rd–6th grade students but has since grown to include middle and high school students. In October 2017, the program was awarded the Mayor’s 2017 Gold Mine Award for Excellence. City officials said the program was chosen “for their efforts to make an impact on local girls, and show them the fun and importance of science, technology, engineering and math.”

In February 2017, Mines’ Society of Women Engineers welcomed nearly 200 9th- to 12th- grade girls to campus for the annual Girls Lead the Way conference. Students attended two sessions in the morning, one a panel of Mines SWE members who spoke about their classes, internships and career opportunities in their chosen fields, and the other a fashion show-style presentation on how to dress appropriately for different professional situations. In the afternoon, students participated in two hands-on activities based on their individual interests. Agata Dean, the faculty advisor for Mines’ SWE section said adding a second session enabled them to “give more girls exposure to the types of disciplines they might be interested in.”

The Girls and Science event—a partnership between the Denver Museum of Nature & Science and CBS4—invites young girls to a day at the museum to meet women scientists and experience the diverse opportunities a future in STEM can bring. Young students and their families explored a variety of “clubhouses” where they could talk to different women and learn about what they do and what inspires them through conversations and hands-on activities. The Mines SWE section staffed the Mines Engineering the Way clubhouse. “The goal of the event is to showcase that girls can do anything and be anything, and that science and math are not just for boys,” Dean said. “By having a clubhouse (and an entire event) staffed by intelligent young women, the hope is that the girls attending will be exposed to role models they can identify with and will be able to envision themselves as part of a STEM future.”

These events, among others, help young girls reach their full potential and become future scientists, mathematicians, engineers and leaders.