Divided We Learn

Pathways to jobs of the future opening via summer STEM programs

Muhlenberg College is one of many campuses hosting research-intensive programs

Makkah Davis at a lectern presenting results from one of her Research Experiences for Undergraduates projects, with several fellow participants.

ALLENTOWN, Pa. — Home-schooled until college, Makkah Davis, 21, had zero exposure to classes and training that could lead to high-paying jobs in tech fields.

All that changed this summer, when Davis found herself sequencing numbers, learning about graduate programs and visiting companies that benefit from the research she and 19 other students have been doing at Muhlenberg College.

“It is amazing to know that we are working on problems to which the world does not yet have an answer, and that we are taking part in contributions to the field of mathematics,” said Davis, a junior majoring in math at nearby Moravian College. “Many minority students are not exposed to the same education other nonminority students are getting exposed to.”

As an African-American and a woman, Davis is part of two demographic groups that that are vastly underrepresented in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) programs.

Related: An urban charter school achieves a fivefold increase in the percentage of its black and Latino graduates who major in STEM

It’s a problem in need of a solution: The U.S. Department of Commerce anticipates an 8.9 percent growth of STEM occupations between 2014 and 2024, amidst concern that there won’t be enough trained workers to fill the jobs, despite the fact that STEM degree holders can expect to earn 29 percent more than non-STEM degree holders.

The expected shortfall is one reason why dozens of research universities throughout the U.S. — along with a sprinkling of small liberal arts colleges like Muhlenberg — are recruiting female and minority students for summer training workshops funded by the National Science Foundation and known as REUs, or Research Experiences for Undergraduates.

The NSF provides scholarships, while each college campus provides room and board.

Muhlenberg President John Williams Jr. said the school joined the REU program because educators hoped to encourage more students to pursue math or science. “It’s good for the field, and it’s good for students,” he said.

Related: How one school district works computational thinking into every grade and class

For the last two years, Eugene Fiorini, a professor of mathematics, has recruited many low-income and minority students for the REU program at Muhlenberg. He said that participants from underrepresented groups made up 65 percent of this year’s group — including seven first-generation college students and nine from backgrounds of high economic need.

“My number-one priority and goal is to give opportunities to students who otherwise would not have these opportunities,” Fiorini said on a recent weekday, as students prepared presentations. “Their perspectives are completely changed, and they come away with far more self-confidence than they had before.”

Eugene Fiorini, the REU program director at Muhlenberg College, sits in the back of the class as Eric Jovinelly (a summer Research Experiences for Undergraduates participant) works on a math problem.

Fiorini, who has run REU programs for a decade, said that exposing students to STEM opportunities can change their lives forever. One of his former students now has a Ph.D. in material science, while another is entering a Ph.D. program in astrophysics: “Each of these participants has said over the years that they would not have been aware of the opportunities had they not gone through this REU program,’’ he said.

Fiorini also enjoys taking REU participants to speak with younger students about what they are learning. During one visit, students spent time speaking with children at Casa Guadalupe, a nonprofit, community-based organization aimed at meeting the needs of Latinos in the Lehigh Valley.

“Among us was a Mexican participant, two black students, including myself, and four women,” Davis recalled. “I loved that the students were able to see that level of representation of minority groups pursuing STEM fields and taking part in important and unique experiences like the REU.”

Fiorini hosts seminars during the school year to recruit area college students, along with writing workshops to help them construct strong personal statements on job or graduate school applications. He also reaches out to K-12 schools to try to get more students interested in STEM at an early age.

This summer, students from the Muhlenberg program took field trips to such companies as Air Products and Glaxo-Smith Kline, which benefit from the types of research they are doing.

Related: What if instead of the voucher battle, we gave all of the nation’s children a top STEM education?

Each of the research sites is different and covers different topics. Muhlenberg’s focus is on math research.

Participants work in small groups on two projects over the course and prepare presentations for the sequences they are researching. Some may publish their research results in mathematics journals.

“It was a very beneficial experience,” said Davis, who was introduced to the REU program by her college advisor, who is also one of her mentors for the Muhlenberg program. “We’ve had weekly seminars that we listen to from veteran mathematicians and recent graduates and people currently in the field. We learn about their mathematical journeys — something I hope to teach my own students one day.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, the nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.

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