Keywords: Pre-college, Race/Ethnicity, Gender
The Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) Program started as a partnership between a STEM outreach center within an R1 university, and an all-girl, day and boarding school. Based on that success, it first expanded to include an inner-city, all-girl public school and later to accept female students attending any local, inner-city public school.
WISE is designed to be an experiential learning opportunity for high school women who are advised by university professors and mentored by graduate students. One of the primary objectives of WISE is to encourage women to pursue STEM majors in college.
WISE students gain hands-on research experience in various labs, field settings or computationally in a variety of fields, including nanotechnology, cognitive science, materials science and stem cell research. The program typically spans one semester and is offered in both the fall and the spring. The WISE students work on the university campus two afternoons each week. At the close of each semester, WISE students present their research and experiences to the other students and mentors.
Because the program was successful with the private school (over the first 10 years, 68% of the students went on to major in a STEM field), the university expanded the program to include an inner-city, all-girl public school in 2014. Efforts were made to include a teacher in the public school to identify qualified students and to support them throughout the program. However, clear differences remained.
Importantly, private schools have more teacher support. At the private school, the students are enrolled in a research course and participate in WISE as a cohort with a teacher who provides feedback on the students’ presentations, reviews their journals weekly, visits the students in their research lab and intervenes if necessary to resolve issues between a mentor and student or faculty and student.
Private school students have typically had more coursework preparing them for science research. Furthermore, the content taught at the private school was of higher quality than that of the public school.
Public school students’ need for afterschool or summer jobs may preclude their involvement in research unless it is paid. Thankfully faculty were willing to write student pay into their NSF broader impact budgets in order to serve this underserved population.
To date, one of the 21 public school students who participated in WISE had such a positive experience that she continued unpaid over the summer and into the fall after her initial spring semester research internship, co-authored a paper and attended a conference. Another former student graduated from college with a degree in bio-chemistry and had parlayed her WISE experience to obtain a research internship at another university in her field.
In conclusion, although there are differences in the supports given and needed to public vs. private school students, the WISE program has been successful at expanding the STEM opportunities for young women from both groups.
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