STEM summer academy to inspire young science community

Only 16 percent of high school seniors are interested in pursuing a career in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), according to the U.S. Department of Education. 

As the nation falls out of the top 20 rankings in math and science among industrialized nations, STEM careers are estimated to be in most demand with a workforce that is projected to increase by 14 percent in all occupations and as much as 62 percent for biomedical engineers. 

Last month, USF was awarded $1.2 million by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) to develop a summer program to cultivate a passion for STEM fields in first-year students. 

Scott Lewis, member of the STEM Academy and USF research professor, said the academy would excite incoming students when it opens next year by offering a taste of what the fields of science have to offer. 

“I see hundreds of students engaged and talking about science,” Lewis said. “It’s really rewarding after putting in all the planning and foresight into it.”

The academy will eventually serve 480 students split into 20 groups led by seniors and graduate students. 

Richard Pollenz, director of the STEM Academy and associate dean of undergraduate studies, said a focus on mentorships and connecting fellow students would foster a STEM community on campus. 

“If you think about it, there are roughly 1,100 students coming into biology, biomedical majors,” Pollenz said. “Some of our information says they feel lost and don’t feel connected. This is going to be a way to hopefully help them feel connected early.” 

Students will have the option to live on the same floor of a residence hall with others who attend the summer academy as well. 

Along with encouraging community, Pollenz said hands-on experience would also create incentive retention, as students will receive more personalized training and tutoring in the SMART Lab. 

“Some of the data suggests that when you give students a dry run of how some of the learning happens that they do much better when they get into it for real,” he said. 

Lewis said letting students learn research methods to explore topics of interest would prepare them for upper level college courses. 

“The way research works, it’s not something that happens very quickly as far as your investment in it, it takes a long time to mature,” he said. “I think that the earlier you can do research the more meaningful it’s going to be.” 

Most of the opportunities will focus on biology and biomedical research, which are the most popular fields for first-year students. 

Pollenz said 60 percent of biology students, who make up the majority of STEM freshmen, switch out of their major. 

“We know the statistics of what is happening, we don’t know why,” he said. “Are they leaving because they aren’t feeling inspired? If we can see a 10 or 20 percent difference, that is huge.” 

In the larger picture, the deficit of STEM graduates shrinks the supply of qualified workers. According to the Council of Foreign Relations, 60 percent of U.S. employees cannot find qualified workers — a statistic Pollenz said USF’s STEM program aims to change. 

USF was one of 37 research universities HHMI selected in a $60 million effort to improve U.S. competitiveness in science. 

The $1.2 million grant money is projected to end in 2019, but Lewis said USF would pay for the academy afterward. 

“There are so many career opportunities in science and math and the more we can get the word out that there are those opportunities and very good careers, the better,” Lewis said.