Jumpstart on STEM, just in time for high school

Ershela Sims only has to look at the numbers to know that Step Up to STEM, the summer program she directs, is making an impact. Nearly half of the participants from the first year of the interdisciplinary program, when they were rising ninth graders, applied to North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics this year, “and over half got in,” says Sims, who also serves as dean of engineering and technology at NCSSM.

Filling the pipeline of underrepresented minorities pursuing STEM majors and research is the aim of the three-year-old Step Up to STEM program. Rising ninth graders who have an interest in and aptitude for science and math live on campus for two weeks in the summer and participate in hands-on activities and research projects that connect science and math to their daily lives. Then they are paired with mentors in their hometowns for six months during their ninth-grade year, with continuing contact from Sims. They return to campus in April to present their research as part of the spring Research Symposium.

“Some students shadow dentists or physicians, one is working with a chemical engineering professor at NC State, another with a biomedical engineering professor at Duke, another with an architect,” Sims says. Devin Sawyer of Stedman, NC, was a participant in the program’s first year. He began his mentorship with a Fayetteville-area physician. This past summer, Sawyer traveled with the doctor on a Doctors Without Borders mission trip. Sawyer is entering NCSSM this fall.

Browse 2015 Step up to STEM photos by Jonnell Carpenter, NCSSM student life instructor.

The Step Up to STEM instructors (among them are NCSSM faculty Noreen Naiman, Philip Rash, Sims, and residential education instructor Ellis Johnson) aim to keep the coursework interdisciplinary, collaborative, and fun. The students may collect data on students’ favorite songs in English class, then learn how to analyze it in math class. Research projects include using common ingredients to come up with the best coating formula for pills. Practical lessons include public speaking, learning to write timed essays with SAT-type prompts, and reading research papers written by NCSSM students.

“This experience gives the students a great confidence boost as they start ninth grade and high school,” says Jessica Harris, a guidance counselor at East Chapel High School who teaches the Step Up to STEM humanities classes.

Evening activities include a career night, exposing students to a range of occupations. And then there’s fun. Step Up to STEM students this summer learned to salsa dance and joined fellow STEM participants in the Accelerator program for a field trip and Durham Bulls game.

“I tell the students that they’ve already got a jumpstart on their college applications by participating in an enrichment program,” Sims says. “Instead of sitting home and playing video games, they’re already getting a residential academic experience. You’re only going to get out of it what you put into it.”

Step Up to STEM is in its final year of its original three-year grant funding by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, the North Carolina GlaxoSmithKline Foundation, Bayer Crop Science, and Duke Energy Foundation.

One sure sign of the program’s success is how many parents and students ask Sims about finding a similar program for rising tenth graders, she says. Another sign: At this year’s career night, after the students had experienced a week of classes and living on campus, 75 percent of them said they wanted to apply to NCSSM.