Collaboration gets $1.2 million NSF grant to boost STEM learning

College students from first-generation, low-income, and minority backgrounds are 16 times less likely than other students to do well in STEM courses — science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

The National Science Foundation wants that to change. And it’s giving researchers at the UO School of Journalism and Communication and the College of Education a $1.2 million, three-year grant to pursue a creative, interdisciplinary solution to the problem.

Ross Anderson, Ed Madison and Jenefer Husman. The project is called My STEM Story, led by UO assistant professor of journalism Ed Madison, associate professor of education Jenefer Husman, education doctoral student Ross Anderson and UO alumnus Matthew Kim, who works as a research scientist at the University of Washington. The project will pair Oregon high school students with undergraduates from underrepresented communities for a mentoring program on the UO campus — with a digital storytelling twist.

My STEM Story began 2½ years ago, when Madison had an aha! moment. Each summer, the Oregon Young Scholars Program brings high school students from minority backgrounds to the UO, where they stay in dorms and take college classes for a week. At the same time, college students from diverse backgrounds are on campus for the Summer Program for Undergraduate Research in Life Sciences, or SPUR, which offers fellowships to promising undergraduates to study under UO research professors.

“It occurred to me: What if we took SPUR students and paired them with OYSP students for a mentorship?” Madison said.

The goal is to give high school students from underrepresented groups an authentic view into the struggles and successes of people who look like them working in STEM. The team hopes the project, which is funded through the Innovative Technology Experiences for Students and Teachers program, will help students envision a future in the field.   

With help from Anderson, Madison put the idea to the test in a trial run of the My STEM Story program in 2016. They introduced Emma, an Oregon Young Scholar, to Janice, a SPUR science fellow. Emma shadowed Janice on campus for a day to learn what it’s really like to work in a lab on a research project — especially as a black woman. Now a high school senior, Emma plans to study a STEM field in college.

Madison, who teaches multimedia journalism in the School of Journalism and Communication, wanted to extend the benefits of the experiment to a wider student population. So he asked Emma to record her experience on her smartphone. That footage became part of a digital story Madison edited.

In the next phase of the project, the researchers plan to present My STEM Story videos like the one featuring Emma and Janice to high school classes with high minority populations.

“Then we’re measuring to see to what degree those videos inspire students who are watching them to either seek more information about a science class or register for a class they might not otherwise,” Madison said.

The UO research team is currently in the internal review approval process, where they define protocols for the program. The next phase of My STEM Story will kick off in summer 2019.

The project wants to put a human spin on STEM education, which can sometimes appear unattainable or overwhelming to students.

“You have these ideas on and you go, ‘This would be kind of cool. I wonder if this would work,’” Madison said. “And then you see how the students involved develop this rapport so naturally and how the young woman who’s the scientist was so perfect. You couldn’t script that.”

Coming from a long career in documentary and TV filmmaking, Madison loves those moments. He said recorded interactions often end up seeming staged and unnatural. But he believes that, because they are genuine interactions, high school students watching the videos will feel more connected and interested.

Husman hopes that natural interest will turn into intrinsic motivation to pursue STEM education.

“We hope to help students imagine their future possible selves as scientists,” Husman said. “Through near-peer mentorship, we provide them a window into the path they would need to take.”

—By Becky Hoag, School of Journalism and Communication