People from racial and ethnic minority groups, those with disabilities, and those from low-income backgrounds are underrepresented in higher education and science-related careers. Adolescents from these groups are less likely to attend college and obtain a science degree or pursue a science-related career. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of a diverse healthcare workforce and exacerbated educational disparities already experienced by youth from disadvantaged backgrounds. While science internship programs can help encourage science interest and pursuit, we know less about the role that virtual curricula play in advancing science education and mentorship opportunities. The Stanford STEP-UP Kickstarter Program seeks to expose underrepresented youth from various geographic locations to the scientific community, enhance scientific identity, promote interest in STEM fields, and provide research experience. The goals of this study were to determine whether the virtual program was acceptable, changed students’ interest and confidence in pursuing a science-related career, and increased sense of belonging in the scientific community.
The Kickstarter program was a weekly 8-month virtual program that included panels from professionals in science-related careers, research seminars, and student-led mentored research projects. Eight 9th and 10th graders from two high schools in the Midwest and two of their teachers participated. A mixed-methods assessment (interviews and pre- and post-program surveys) was conducted. For the surveys, a Likert-type scale (strongly disagree  to strongly agree ) was used.
All students completed the surveys and interviews; teachers completed the interviews. There was significant (p<0.05) improvement from pre- to post-survey in the following: students felt part of the scientific community (2.62 to 1.88), enjoyed working on science problems (2.63 to 1.75), thought of themselves as a scientist (2.88 to 2.00), and know how to communicate clearly and professionally in the research environment (2.63 to 1.75). Trends demonstrated improvement in students’ ability to conduct experiments (2.38 to 1.63), contribute to science (2.25 to 1.75), and succeed in a science-related career (2.38 to 1.63) or science major (2.63 to 1.86). Themes that emerged from the interviews included: the program was a positive distraction during COVID, helped reduce isolation during this time, provided exposure to professionals from diverse backgrounds, and provided learning opportunities on time management, delegating tasks, and how to conduct and present a research project. Participants also discussed that the program was acceptable and met their expectations. Some students reported challenges managing their school responsibilities with those of the program. Teachers noted difficulties with their internet connection, their students’ access to electronic devices, and student distraction during learning when discussing the virtual aspect of the program.
The Stanford STEP-UP Kickstarter program was acceptable and had a positive impact on students’ scientific identity and confidence, and in their interest in pursuing a science-related career. The virtual platform of the program made it accessible to underrepresented students from various geographic locations. Given this, virtual science mentorship programs should continue to be developed and studied as they have great potential to help increase the STEM workforce in underserved areas and its diversity.
Sources of Support
Funded by NIH/NIDDK grant 5 R25 DK078382-16.
© 2022 Published by Elsevier Inc.