Imagine you’re a middle-school student who’s curious about science. A minority. A girl. You’ve never met anyone like you who works in a math or science field – and you’re the first person in your family to even imagine going to college.
Where do you start?
For ten years, the University of Washington Tacoma has helped young people like this explore the world of science and math, develop themselves as leaders and learn that they have a place in higher education. Run by UW Tacoma’s Institute of Technology, the summer Math-Science-Leadership (MSL) program is designed for students who may not have access to extra help in math and science.
“Students in the MSL program get to spend weeks each summer on a college campus and get real, practical experience in science and math,” says Robert Friedman, director of the Institute of Technology. “Rather than spending their summer at home, they can take advantage of a collaborative, educationally-oriented summer experience.”
The free program is open to 7th- through 12th-graders, with a special focus on minorities, girls and kids from low-income families or those whose parents don’t have a college degree. These are students who traditionally aren’t exposed to science and math at a young age and tend to be underrepresented in those fields.
The Institute partners with Tacoma Public Schools and Boys and Girls Clubs to identify students who have shown interest in math and science or need additional support in those areas. It’s become so successful that last summer, for the first time, there were more applicants than seats, according to Amanda Bruner, UW Tacoma’s director of student transition programs and the manager of the MSL program.
“I’ve just been blown away by the success of this program,” Bruner says.
The MSL program was established in 2004 with the goal of introducing more kids to a college environment and supporting STEM careers. The program started with one group of 20 7th-graders, but has grown to serve as many as 120 students each summer. Two-thirds of the participants are from Tacoma. More than half are female, and half are from low-income families and have parents who do not have college degrees. The program is entirely funded by donations from the community, with staffing costs paid by UW Tacoma.
Students in the program spend three weeks in intensive math and science courses, working with faculty from UW Tacoma and local science and math professionals. Each grade level focuses on a different theme, ranging from ecoscience and robotics to video game design and cybersecurity, and students are encouraged to return each summer through 12th grade to take full advantage of the program. In addition to coursework, MSL students have a chance to work hands-on and in the field, practicing the skills they’ll need to study science and math after high school.
“If I had met a scientist when I was in middle school who would come into my class and invite me into their labs, I’d be a Nobel Prize winner by now,” says Joyce Dinglasan-Panlilio, a UW Tacoma assistant professor of environmental science who helps design the 7th-grade curriculum and works directly with MSL students. “It’s so important for students to see somebody in that role and realize that someday, that could be them.”
Dinglasan-Panlilio helped develop a 7th-grade curriculum that teaches practical science and math, focused on environmental science. Students in those classes learn to sample and test air, water and soil, using basic field science and chemistry skills. Dinglasan-Panlilio says many of the college freshmen she teaches could have benefitted from a program like MSL in middle school.
“When I first started teaching freshman chemistry courses, I was surprised that so many of them really needed help in math and science,” she says. “So much of my energy was devoted to keeping that group from falling behind. Students who join the MSL program are getting early science experience that’s going to help them when they are ready for college.”
Middle-school students who are already thinking about their career pathway should consider the fact that science, technology, engineering and math (also called STEM) jobs are expected to grow over the coming decades, according to Bruner, the MSL manager.
“A majority of the new best-paying jobs are in STEM fields,” she says. “And one of the predictors of persisting in a STEM career is being able to positively identify yourself there, being able to see yourself as a scientist. MSL provides that.”
Bruner knows first-hand what it’s like to be a female minority in a science field. A Latina and a first-generation college student, she earned a graduate degree and started her career as a researcher at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. Like many of the kids in MSL, she didn’t imagine herself in a science career.
“I didn’t see myself as capable of being a scientist until I was a senior in college,” she says. “I didn’t know any scientists, and I had no idea how to get there and how to make a living doing it. I don’t care if the kids in MSL end up in a STEM career, but I want them to know that they can.”
That idea was a revelation to Jasmine Burley, a student who completed all 6 years of the program before graduating from high school last spring. She never expected to pursue a science career – she wanted to be a writer – but now she’s a freshman in college studying computer science, all thanks to her time in MSL.
“I didn’t think I would even be interested in computers,” she said. “MSL changed that for me.”
John Burkhardt, Advancement communications, 253-692-4536 or firstname.lastname@example.org