UT Receives Grant to Increase STEMM Interest to Youth in Rural Counties

Starting this fall, a new UT project will allow nearly every sophomore student in Campbell and Union Counties to spend several weeks exploring career options in science, technology, engineering, math, and medical science (STEMM).

The program will engage students in activities that help them learn more about strengths and interests and explore potential barriers they may encounter in attending college as well as career options in STEMM fields.

This project is made possible by a new five-year $963,000 Science Education Partnership award to UT from the National Institutes of Health.

Possibilities in Postsecondary Education and Science—also known as PIPES—will aim to reduce perceived educational barriers, promote college awareness, raise knowledge of critical public health needs, and introduce STEMM-related career opportunities to students at Campbell County Comprehensive High School, Jellico High School, and Union County High School, which are all located in rural areas of Appalachia.

“Most interventions to increase STEMM interest focus solely on exposure to research opportunities,” said Erin Hardin, associate professor of psychology at UT and co-primary investigator for the grant. “Our program is unique because it integrates a focus on career exploration in general and college-going barriers and supports in particular. Getting students interested in STEMM won’t work if those students believe college isn’t an option for them.”

A total of 44 percent of the state’s population lives in Appalachia, where 74 percent of adults have a high school diploma or less. In addition to student support, the project includes workshops for parents on how their children can apply to college, financial aid options, and college myths.

For Hardin, addressing these barriers in high school is essential to increasing the number of Appalachian students who attend college to pursue a STEMM degree.

Multiple entities at UT will be instrumental in making this effort successful, including the College of Arts and Sciences; the College of Education, Health, and Human Sciences; the Center for Environmental Biotechnology; the Appalachian Teaching Project; Engineering Diversity Programs; and the UT Graduate School of Medicine.

“This interdisciplinary effort is very unique in targeting youth in rural Appalachian communities,” said Melinda Gibbons, associate professor of counselor education at UT and co-primary investigator for the grant. “We want to develop sustainable interventions that increase support for higher education and interest in STEMM. We’ll be collecting data along the way to see who goes on to college as well as who declares a STEMM-related major.”

Additional components of the grant include peer mentoring, professional development for school counselors and STEMM teachers, and a student summer camp on UT’s campus.

Students who come to UT in the summer will visit research labs on and off campus. They will meet with faculty and representatives in private industry as well as current undergraduate students who are enrolled in various STEMM majors.

Additionally, public health outreach is a key component of the project which includes several public health-related goals. Students who participate in PIPES in eleventh grade will be engaged in a yearlong project through which they will research a public health issue they have chosen that is relevant to their communities, such as methamphetamine abuse, COPD, obesity, diabetes or a similar issue.

“The eleventh grade projects will culminate with a publicly available educational outreach product, such as a PSA, web page, or iPad app developed by the students to educate the community,” said Gibbons. “We must enable and encourage health-related higher education opportunities among the next generation of leaders who will then take back their knowledge to their hometowns. We’re really looking forward to getting this project off the ground and working with the students, parents, teachers, and counselors in these communities.”

CONTACT:

Tyra Haag (865-974-5460, tyra.haag@tennessee.edu)