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Opening the STEM Pipeline

UNLV removing some of the stumbling blocks for getting students interested in the science and engineering fields. The key: Get 'em while they're young.

Campus News  |  Jan 21, 2015  |  By Brian Sodoma
closeup of a person using a calculator with a keyboard and mouse to the side

(R. Marsh Starks / UNLV Photo Services)

In high school, Leo Agpawa was eyeing a hospitality career. But a physics class in his senior year at Valley High School changed everything.

An instructor with a wealth of professional experience taught the class. The teacher made physics real, not just a collection of abstract concepts in a textbook. Suddenly curious about science, Agpawa joined a robotics club. Now, six years later, he has a UNLV computer engineering degree and a job at National Security Technologies (NSTec).

"It was that one guy and that club that led me to this," said Agpawa, now 23. "I think if more programs like that exist in high school, it can show that engineers can be cool."

Carl Reiber, UNLV's vice provost for academic affairs, says there are plenty more stories out there like Agpawa's. And now, with the help of the university's numerous partnerships with CCSD, private industry and others, STEM (Science Technology Engineering Math) program enrollment is climbing.

Overcoming Misconceptions

Unfortunately, some K-12 students take themselves out of the equation before they ever get to college. Many low-income students feel pressure to get a job right out of high school, Reiber said, and a college degree is daunting when no one in the family has gone before.

"We're fighting some bad national PR about the increasing costs of education," he said. "People hear these reports about college costing $50,000 a year (but) not all schools cost that much. But parents hear these things and think, 'We can't afford that.'"

UNLV is known for its affordability, Reiber noted, and there are a growing number of financial aid programs to remove the cost barrier to college. But if children don't ever see themselves in college, they'll never get here.

Getting the college conversation going at least by middle school is important, experts said. Funded by federal grant dollars, the GEAR UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs) at UNLV targets middle school and high school students in lower income schools. The program walks students through the application process and includes college tours. At UNLV, one of the stops is Lied Library.

"(The GEAR UP students) are so curious and engaged and wonder what it might be like to go to college," said Sue Wainscott, UNLV's STEM Librarian who was part of a panel discussion at UNLV's Third Annual STEM Summit. "It's very invigorating for us at the university to get engaged in these types of programs."

The summit brings UNLV and community partners together to explore best practices in working with government agencies and to develop retention and recruitment strategies for the STEM and health science fields.

One key, administrators have found, is K-12 teacher professional development. UNLV officials work with CCSD teachers to help make science or math lessons fun and applicable to every day life. "The whole premise that underlies the professional development is to get the teacher to engage the student [in a STEM discipline] at the age appropriate time and not to scare them away," Reiber added. "You don't need to scare kids off in third and fourth grade by talking about calculus."

The Math Factor

The "M" in STEM has proven to be another major barrier, even for students who do fine in math. Too often, high school students avoid upper division math classes once they've met the basic graduation requirements. That forces them to start with remedial math courses at the college level.

It's a major stumbling block for college completion. These students are much more likely to eventually drop out altogether. Having been out of math classes for a year or two, they procrastinate on completing their college math requirement, which is often a prerequisite for upper division courses in the sciences and health fields.

The Academic Success Center teamed with the math learning center to open tutoring classes for senior-level high school students. Last year, the ASC also launched the Expect Success Summer Bridge Program. The bootcamp for incoming freshman was a great success, with 82 percent of the participants placing into college-level math classes for the fall 2014 semester. A five-week study course also allows high school students to prepare for the ACT college placement exam. Doing well on the exam will lead to a higher math placement.

"Many students don't realize the ACT test is a placement exam and few take it seriously and most don't even study," Reiber said. "But it's amazing, when students actually study for the test, they do really well."

Each year, UNLV welcomes approximately 4,000 new freshmen. Advisors now "hand enroll" students in math and English courses, and then place them into an introductory course for their potential major, Reiber said. This forces students to knock out the math basics and general education requirements early while getting a glimpse of their chosen major.

By junior year, advising becomes more advanced. Pre-med students, for example, are aligned with a specific advisor who seeks opportunities to shadow physicians, guides them through MCAT test preparations and other pre-med specific needs.

Research and Undergraduate Education

Many STEM students also become involved in undergraduate research efforts with professors and industry partners. Tom Piechota, UNLV's vice president of research and economic development, said there are plenty of local companies aligning with the university to conduct research. One gaming innovation course, for example, has produced 13 new patents for new gaming technologies. A relationship with NV Energy has created a very hands-on minor program in renewable energy. Undergraduate research opportunities have even yielded start-up companies like Skyworks Aerial Systems, a drone manufacturer recently launched out of the engineering college.

"You hear it talked about a lot where we're educating employees of companies but we're also creating employers too," Piechota said. "Students are talking about being entrepreneurs. Many are talking about creating companies."

With university and professional experience now under his belt, Agpawa is eyeing graduate school. But even more importantly, he wants his future children to see STEM opportunities before their senior year. "Our generation ... grew up with technology. For us, it's our responsibility to teach our children the importance of this," he added. "I think it'll be a little easier for our kids to see this."