Turning STEM Education Inside-Out: Teaching and Learning Inside Prisons

Abstract

The Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program is an international network of teachers and learners who work to break down walls of division by facilitating dialogue across social differences.  In this model, first developed by Lori Pompa at Temple University, campus-based college students (outside students) join incarcerated students (inside students) for a college course that is taught inside a correctional facility.  Compared to other disciplines, STEM courses are underrepresented in the Inside-Out program.  Here we discuss the unique opportunities of teaching a STEM course inside prison using the Inside-Out approach and how it differs from other models of STEM teaching in prison.  Our analysis is based on the experience of three instructors from two liberal arts colleges, who taught Inside-Out courses in statistics, number theory, and biochemistry inside a medium-security state prison for men.  

Introduction

For over 20 years, the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program (https://www.insideoutcenter.org), based at Temple University, has brought campus-based college students together with incarcerated students for semester-long courses held in prisons, jails, and other correctional settings all around the world (Davis and Roswell, 2013). The Inside-Out approach to education is a collaboration between all parties involved, not one in which higher education professors and students go to a carceral organization to “help inmates” out of a sense of volunteerism or charity. The Claremont Colleges Inside-Out program at the California Rehabilitation Center (CRC), a medium-security  state prison for men located in Norco, CA, was originally brought to Claremont by Pitzer College (one of the Claremont Colleges).  The Claremont Colleges Inside-Out program is run in part by a group of incarcerated men at CRC who are vital members of our “Think Tank.”

Although hundreds of Inside-Out courses have been taught nationwide and the outcomes have been extensively studied (Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, 2020), a very small number of the Inside-Out courses offered to date have been in the fields of mathematics or the natural sciences. In this paper, we explore some of the unique challenges and opportunities of using the Inside-Out approach for STEM classes.  

We recognize that there are myriad STEM programs inside carceral institutions.  They range from the nationally supported (e.g., NSF INCLUDES Alliance) to the very local (e.g., a program at CRC that allows inmates to earn an AA degree from Norco Community College).  At the Claremont Colleges, a group of student volunteers goes into prisons to teach non-credit physics, chemistry, and engineering through the Prison Education Project (http://www.prisoneducationproject.org). 

In contrast, here we are addressing the specific case of bringing traditional campus (outside) students into prison, not to be teachers, but to be co-learners alongside incarcerated (inside) students.  The simple difference of bringing together inside and outside students (which for us included both male and female students) fundamentally changes the structure of the classroom.  Without the co-learning process, both the inside and outside students miss out.  As part of the Inside-Out experience, the inside students have an opportunity to learn material to which they do not necessarily have access; but more importantly, the power structure of the learning is dismantled in a setting (a STEM class) where hierarchies typically dominate the space (Martin, 2009). For the outside students, the disruption of the power structure of the STEM classroom can be enlightening. The outside students experience the depth of learning that can happen when ideas come from many different perspectives.  In our experience, the impact of the Inside-Out classroom can be transformative for both groups of students, helping them to approach their learning and the world in a more humane way (Peterson, 2019).  

Here we present reflections based on three separate courses (math, statistics, and biochemistry) taught by three instructors from two different liberal arts colleges.  All three instructors had completed the weeklong Inside-Out Training Institute, and we were all teaching our first class in this format.  Each course was a full semester, credit-bearing course for all students, both inside and outside.  During the semester, the courses met once per week for up to three hours a week inside the prison.  We will talk about each course individually and then integrate our thoughts to offer a synthesis and analysis.

Thinking with Data (Jo Hardin)

Although Math 57 was a statistics class taught at an introductory level, it was not “Introduction to Statistics” as most university campuses conceive it.  The learning goals centered around being able to critically evaluate numbers and claims based on data that are presented.   The hope was for the students to realize that statistical conclusions are being made around them every day, and that to understand how those conclusions come about is a matter not only of quantitative literacy but also of a larger logical framework.  

Each week, the students read from a chapter of a statistics text (Utts, 1999) along with external articles.  For example, during the week when we covered sampling, the text was supplemented by articles on the sampling methods suggested by the Census Bureau as a way to improve the accuracy of the census—methods that were ultimately ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, although statisticians believe the outcome of the ruling is to continue to undercount people of color and people with transitional living situations (Department of Commerce v. U.S. House of Representatives, 1999).  During the week covering probability, we spent time discussing forensics and how different “match” probabilities (e.g., hair match, DNA match, etc.) can have very different accuracy rates.

A typical day started with an activity designed to bring us all into the space, followed up with an activity which would highlight the day’s topic.  For example, during the week in which we covered confidence intervals, I brought in a blow-up globe.  We stood in a circle and threw the ball to one another, each time recording whether our right thumb landed on water or land.  We used technical details from the week’s readings to calculate a confidence interval for the proportion of the Earth that is covered in water.  (Depending on the correctional facility’s character, you might not choose to throw a ball around in an Inside-Out class; some facilities have strict security protocols and will not allow anything to be thrown around the classroom.)

After the topic-specific activity, we would often gather in small groups with a list of pre-written discussion questions.  The thought questions were meant to help the students dig deeper into the readings and debate the topic at hand.  Time and again, both the inside and outside students reported that the group discussions were their favorite part of the class.  In their small groups, hesitant students were given a voice, and each student could share their understanding of the material without fear of speaking up incorrectly in front of the entire class.

 Although we often ran short on time, we would always close with some kind of reflection on the material or on the day’s activities.  Sometimes we would go around the circle with a one-word reflection.  Sometimes I would ask them to report the part of the day which they were still struggling to wrap their heads around, or, slightly nuanced, the topic which was hardest to understand in general. 

After the class session each week, students were asked to write a reflection essay.  The reflection essay was among the most powerful aspects of the class, as it gave the students an opportunity to spend time putting down on paper both their emotional reactions and their understanding of the statistical topics.  The reflection paper had three sections: (1) observations from the class meeting—anything that stood out, (2) statistical analysis—using references from the texts, and (3) emotional reactions—feelings.

The reflections essays were not given a letter grade, yet they served the incredibly valuable purpose of connecting each and every student to both the material (statistical content) and the people in the room.  Detailed instructor feedback was provided on the essays, and without the essays, especially the personal reflection part, it would have been much harder for the students to feel connected and integrated into the course.

The last three weeks of the semester were spent working on projects whose purpose was to bring the ideas from the class into a larger space.  Outside visitors were invited to the closing ceremonies, but the logistics surrounding visitors’ clearance was unfortunately too complicated.  Instead, the students presented their projects to each other.  One group did a Dear Data (http://www.dear-data.com/) assignment where they compared artistic visualizations of the data describing a week in an inside student’s life with a week in an outside student’s life.  Another group made a chain link out of construction paper where each link detailed a study, a dataset, or an individual’s story describing recidivism.  A third group talked about some of the biggest misconceptions in statistical studies and how we can raise our consciousness to form valid conclusions about a study. 

HIV/AIDS: Science Society & Service (Karl Haushalter)

Chemistry 187 explored scientific and societal perspectives on infectious disease.  The course was divided into three modules focusing on plague, HIV-AIDS, and tuberculosis, with time approximately evenly divided between societal context and scientific content.  The complex and multidisciplinary challenges of responding to highly stigmatized infectious diseases such as HIV-AIDS can be fertile ground for exploring the entanglement of science and society, as demonstrated by the large number of published courses that use HIV-AIDS as a focus for integrating science education and civic engagement (for example, see Fan, Conner, & Villarreal, 2014; Iimoto 2005; SENCER 2020a; SENCER 2020b).  

Chemistry 187 was taught with the Inside-Out pedagogy, which emphasizes a dialogic approach with the majority of class time spent in small, mixed discussion groups (Pompa, Crabbe, & Turenne, 2018).  For the Chemistry 187 content related to our societal readings, this format was a natural fit for the issues we examined.  The students learned substantially from each other, especially given their differing perspectives based on life experiences related to the social determinants of health, which was an underlying theme of the course.  

Implementing the Inside-Out pedagogy for the science content of Chemistry 187 was challenging for me as an instructor.  Many of our chosen topics (e.g., virology) required a firm understanding of threshold concepts (e.g., the central dogma of molecular biology) in order to have an entry point into meaningful discussions (Meyer and Land, 2003).  As an instructor, I felt that I could not ignore the variation in previous exposure to biology instruction, but I did not want to center upon this difference either.  Thus, even though the students majoring in biology could have taught lessons on the threshold concepts, this approach would be counter to the spirit of Inside-Out in which the students are all co-learners. Ultimately, I used a hybrid approach that featured some mini-lectures that I strived to make as interactive as possible. When possible, these mini-lectures were preceded by small-group brainstorming sessions to generate motivating questions for the mini-lectures and followed by small-group applied problem-solving sessions.  The Inside-Out emphasis on community building, through icebreakers, circle activities, and jointly authored ground rules, paid dividends in the smooth functioning of the small group science lessons.   

If Chemistry 187 were taught as a traditional college campus-based course, the class would utilize technology (lecture slides, PyMOL, YouTube animations) for visualizing the molecular details of host-pathogen interactions.  In prison, where it was not possible to routinely access this type of technology, our class had to develop other methods to help the unseeable be seen.  Indeed, the absence of technology led to creative solutions.  By providing the students with large-format flip chart paper and thick colored markers, I allowed them to be creative in making colorful, detailed images that were even more informative than the standard slides used in the traditional campus-based course.  Several of the students had untapped artistic talent and working together with their classmates to interpret our readings, they were able as a group to communicate complex scientific ideas visually on the flip chart paper.  

An important part of an Inside-Out course is the end-of-semester group project. These projects are intended to be focused specifically on intersections of the course disciplinary topic and prison, with a strong emphasis on application (Pompa, Crabbe, & Turenne, 2018, p. 55).  In Chemistry 187, teams were blended, with two or three inside students and two or three outside students in each team.  All students were tasked to bring their own expertise to bear on the project, the theme of which was picked by the student teams.  For example, one of the student teams created educational posters about influenza vaccination.  As a class, we learned from the inside students that the flu vaccine is available at the California Rehabilitation Center, but many incarcerated men do not opt to get vaccinated, possibly due to low trust in the prison health system and widespread conspiracy theories (e.g., prison officials used the flu vaccine to inject people with tracking devices).  This is a missed opportunity to prevent a serious communicable disease that spreads easily in confined spaces (Sequera, Valencia, García-Basteiro, Marco, & Bayas, 2015). Working together, the inside and outside students on this team developed materials to address the common concerns of the target audience related to influenza vaccination and provide health-promoting education in the context of prison.  

Other team projects included a letter to the warden proposing the adoption of harm reduction strategies (e.g. bleaching stations for sterilizing needles used for illicit tattoos or injection drug use) to reduce the spread of hepatitis C in prison; educational pamphlets about preventing sexually transmitted diseases; and an evidence-based letter to the State Prison Board about the connection between nutrition and a healthy immune system.  The student projects shared in common the key feature of bringing together inside and outside students to share their unique expertise as they collaborated on a project that applied what they had learned about the science of infectious disease during the semester to an authentic issue in the living context of the inside students.  

Introduction to Number Theory (Darryl Yong)

Even though I have no formal training in number theory, I chose to teach this subject because it lends itself well to exploration and rehumanizing approaches to teaching and learning mathematics (Goffney, Gutiérrez, & Boston, 2018). Requiring only some mathematics skills and ideas from high school algebra, this course started with the divisors of integers and modular arithmetic and culminated with the Rivest–Shamir–Adleman (RSA) cryptosystem, a widely used method for secure data transmission.

Of our three courses, this one was perhaps the most grounded in its disciplinary content. While I organized several class discussions around our prior experiences of learning mathematics and about contemporary mathematicians (mostly of color), about 90% of class time was spent working on carefully sequenced sets of mathematical tasks in small groups. Students shared their results communally on the board, and I occasionally convened the group to share their findings with each other. The list of tasks for each class was adjusted based on what students accomplished and found interesting in previous classes.

In “Math Instructors’ Critical Reflections on Teaching in Prison,” Robert Scott writes: “A math pedagogy premised upon following the rules, accepting that there is only one right answer, and relying on practice/repetition in order to habituate oneself to predetermined axioms would seem to reprise the culture of incarceration itself.” How does one teach a class on a well-established field like number theory without reproducing the dehumanizing effects of prisons in the classroom?

To do this, I used a pedagogical approach based on my work delivering professional development to secondary school teachers through the Park City Mathematics Institute. In this approach, students encounter new mathematical ideas without any formal definitions or specialized notation. The mathematical tasks are designed to encourage students to look for patterns and make connections. Mathematical ideas are solidified when students give voice to them by sharing them publicly. Finally, after several exposures to similar patterns and connections, I formalized ideas by introducing their established mathematical names and notations. I followed this general approach during the entire course except for the last day of class when we used all of the machinery that we had developed to explain how the RSA cryptosystem works (Omar, 2017). So, even though students were often practicing and repeating mathematical calculations, they were in fact creating meaning for themselves and others in the classroom.

My observations of the students’ progress and their written reflections lead me to believe that they truly enjoyed learning mathematics, even though some had been traumatized by previous mathematics learning experiences. Each class period seemed to fly by. Students would work almost continuously for the entire period, though there was also quite a bit of casual banter and joyful laughter around the room. It felt like a space where both inside and outside students were doing mathematics and creating meaning together. My Inside-Out experience made me wonder why I don’t try to use more of this kind of rehumanizing pedagogy in my usual classes at Harvey Mudd College.

Lessons Learned

Examining the experiences of the three instructors, we find that several common themes emerge from our efforts to integrate STEM content within the Inside-Out Prison Exchange program. First, while many undergraduate STEM courses are primarily lecture-based, the Inside-Out program challenges faculty to use liberatory pedagogies (Freire, 1970).  Thus, we all chose to minimize lecturing as much as possible and spend most of our class time in small group activities or whole class discussion.  These forms of instruction democratize intellectual authority in the classroom and allow both inside and outside students to draw on personal funds of knowledge. An inside student wrote, “In non-Inside-Out classes I don’t learn who my peers are, whereas this class was unique in the fact that we were learning from one another just as much as we were learning from our professor.” Furthermore, with the inside and outside students constantly talking together and working with each other, the students discovered for themselves the many ways in which traditional college-age STEM students and incarcerated STEM students share common struggles, concerns, and motivations.  

A second common theme that we encountered in our classes was how Inside-Out courses helped students uncover and confront societal expectations and stereotypes about who is competent in STEM. In our end-of-course evaluation surveys, we asked students what their biggest worry about the class was prior to starting the course. A few outside students wrote that they were concerned that the Inside-Out course wasn’t going to be as rigorous as their usual courses, whereas inside students wrote that they were initially concerned about being able to “keep up” with the outside students. These concerns relate to societal stereotypes that STEM competence is innate rather than a skill to be developed and that incarcerated people and people of color are not able to access STEM. Fortunately, these surveys also revealed that students uniformly felt their Inside-Out courses to be intellectually demanding and that inside students felt successful in the class and were recognized for their contributions in class. The reason that students were able to upend their worries was because our Inside-Out courses brought together groups of people who would otherwise never get to meet each other in the context of doing rigorous, challenging STEM work together. One inside student wrote that he was surprised at the “ease [with] which people from diverse lifestyles and backgrounds can struggle with a subject, work together, and succeed.”

Finally, all three of the authors chose to teach an Inside-Out course primarily because of the humanity it offered to our work.  And while none of us are experts in criminal justice, we are all deeply aware that STEM is neither objective nor apolitical.  When designing our courses, we specifically chose topics and approaches that would connect STEM back to the human condition, for example, discussing how disease manifests in different communities, how forensic probabilities do not represent truth, and how mathematical self-identification is different from mathematical ability. There is abundant evidence that bringing humanity into STEM can have an enormous impact on marginalized communities, and we believe that our courses are part of that trend.

Along with humanizing the course content in each of our STEM courses, the act of bringing the courses inside is a manifestation of our collective belief that STEM is not the domain of the privileged few.  Instead, science and science education belong to and are in service of all people.  In plain sight of each other, students of all backgrounds are able to embrace the learning of STEM content. Creating a space that allows for the tangible recognition by everyone involved that STEM is for all people is itself a highly political act.  

Acknowledgements

We are grateful for the guidance and support of our colleagues from the Claremont Critical Justice Education Initiative, especially Tyee Griffith, Tessa Hicks Peterson, Gabriela Gamiz, and Nigel Boyle.  We would like to thank the staff at the California Rehabilitation Center for their continuing partnership.  Financial support was generously provided by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Academic Deans Council of the Claremont Colleges.  Critical feedback on the manuscript was provided by Tessa Hicks Peterson and David Vosburg.  We gratefully acknowledge Lori Pompa and the Inside-Out Center for their leadership and expertise.  Finally, we owe the largest debt of gratitude to our students, both inside and out.

Dedication

This article is dedicated to the memory of David L. Ferguson, whose lifelong work in extending the joys and benefits of STEM education to underserved students continues to inspire us.  David saw the potential to be a scholar in all of his students, even before they could see it in themselves.  We strive to follow the example of David’s pioneering work in diversity and inclusive excellence in STEM education.

Authors

Jo Hardin

Jo Hardin (Jo.Hardin@pomona.edu) is a professor of mathematics at Pomona College.  She is a statistician by training, and her research focuses on applied and interdisciplinary projects with molecular biologists.  Through the Posse Foundation, she has mentored students at Pomona College originally from Chicago, IL.

 

 

Karl Haushalter

Karl Haushalter (haushalter@hmc.edu) is an associate professor of chemistry and biology at Harvey Mudd College.  His research interests include the enzymology of DNA repair and the regulation of gene expression by small RNA.  Karl works closely with the Office of Community Engagement at HMC and has led faculty development workshops to promote community-based learning.

 

 

Darryl Yong

Darryl Yong (dyong@hmc.edu) is a professor of mathematics, associate dean for faculty development and diversity, and mathematics clinic program director at Harvey Mudd College. He was also the founding director of the Claremont Colleges Center for Teaching and Learning. His scholarship has several foci: the retention and professional development of secondary school mathematics teachers, effective teaching practices in undergraduate STEM education, and equity, justice, and diversity in higher education.

References

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Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed (M. B. Ramos, Trans.). New York, NY: Continuum.

Goffney, I., Gutiérrez, R., & Boston, M. (Eds.). (2018). Rehumanizing mathematics for Black, Indigenous, and Latinx students. Reston, VA: National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

Iimoto, D. (2005). AIDS and other human diseases: Teaching science in the context of culture. Journal of College Science Teaching, 34, 38–41.

Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program. (2020). Scholarship on Inside-Out. Retrieved from https://www.insideoutcenter.org/scholarship-inside-out.html

Martin, D. B. (2009). Researching race in mathematics education. Teachers College Record, 111(2), 295–338.

Meyer J. H. F., & Land, R. (2003). Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge. In C. Rust, (Ed.), Improving student learning—ten years on (pp. 412–424). Oxford, UK: Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development.

National Science Foundation (NSF). (2019). NSF INCLUDES Alliance: STEM opportunities in prison settings. Retrieved from  https://www.nsf.gov/awardsearch/showAward?AWD_ID=1931045)

Omar, M. (2017). Number theory toward RSA cryptography: In 10 undergraduate lectures. (n.p.): CreateSpace Publishing. 

Peterson, T. H. (2019). Healing pedagogy from the inside out: The paradox of liberatory education in prison. In R. Ginsburg (Ed.), Critical perspectives on teaching in prison: Students and instructors on pedagogy behind the wall (pp. 175–187). New York, NY: Routledge.

Pompa, L., Crabbe, M., & Turenne, E.  (2018). The Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program instructor’s manual. Philadelphia, PA: The Inside-Out Center, Temple University.

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Sequera V. G., Valencia, S., García-Basteiro, A. L., Marco, A., & Bayas, J. M. (2015). Vaccinations in prisons: A shot in the arm for community health. Human Vaccines & Immunotherapeutics, 11(11), 2615–2626. doi:10.1080/21645515.2015.1051269

Utts, J. (1999). Seeing through statistics (2nd ed.).  Pacific Grove, CA: Duxbury Press.

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National Summer Transportation Institute: Increasing Career Awareness in Civil Engineering for Underserved High School Students

Abstract

Our nation needs to increase the number of students pursuing degrees in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) and those leading to transportation-related careers.  In order to meet the demand for qualified graduates in transportation, it is necessary to diversify the pool of students entering college with an interest in these fields. The National Summer Transportation Institute (NSTI) is an educational initiative developed by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and Department of Transportation (DOT).   The NSTI at City Tech was designed to increase awareness of transportation-related careers among New York City high school students. The structure of City Tech’s NSTI includes lectures, field trips, projects, and laboratory activities that promote the growth of each participant and strengthen their academic and social skills.  This NSTI program provides a model for broadening participation in STEM and building America’s STEM workforce.

Need to Increase Underrepresented Minorities in Civil Engineering

In order to remain competitive in a world of advancing technology, the United States needs to build a workforce with knowledge and skills in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM).  According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the projected number of STEM jobs was expected to grow 18.7% during the 2010–2020 period (Fayer, Lacey, & Watson, 2017). As the country’s economy and demographics change, it is important to increase the participation of underrepresented minority groups in STEM, including women (Gilliam, Jagoda, Hill, & Bouris, 2016; Briggs, 2016).  Given more opportunities to develop their capabilities in STEM, this untapped population can help to fill the critical STEM workforce gap (Science Pioneers, 2017; U.S. Department of Commerce, 2011).    

The U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics (2020) reports that the employment of civil engineers is projected to grow 6% from 2018 to 2028, an average rate faster than all other occupations. As the current U.S. infrastructure grows obsolete, civil engineers will be needed to manage projects that rebuild, repair, and upgrade bridges, roads, levees, dams, airports, buildings, and other structures. Because of the urgency to increase the civil engineering workforce, the Federal Highway Administration Office of Civil Rights (HCR) encourages academic outreaches to target groups who are underrepresented in the transportation workforce.  Females, economically disadvantaged students, and students with disabilities have been identified as underrepresented minorities in STEM (NSTIP, 2012). Based on the 2010 census report, the population of the United States is about 49.2% male and 50.8% female (Howden & Meyer, 2011). But although women make up half of the college student population and the general workforce, they account for only about one fifth of all bachelor’s degrees conferred in engineering in 2016 (National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, 2017; Yoder, 2016) and a quarter of the STEM workforce (Landivar, 2013). The statistics become more dismal for minority women.  In 2012, only 3.1% of bachelor’s degrees in engineering were awarded to minority women (National Science Board, 2016). Specific to the civil engineering workforce, the Bureau of Labor Statistics in its Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey (2016) states that a tenth of the jobs were held by women. Only 3.6% of the civil engineering positions were held by African Americans, 10.4% by Hispanics, and 7.7% by Asian Americans. While the population trends show that minorities will become the majority, the STEM workforce statistics clearly does not proportionally reflect this trend, particularly in civil engineering. Therefore, it is imperative that more programs be developed to promote the awareness of civil engineering occupations and to increase the participation of minorities and women in these fields.  

Benefits of Exposure to STEM at the K–12 level

Many studies have shown a correlation between STEM exposure at the K–12 level and a student’s interest in pursuing a STEM degree (Chiappinelli et al, 2016; Lomax, 2015; Means, Wang, Young, Peters, & Lynch, 2016; Naizer, Hawthorne, & Henley, 2014.) While the majority of American youth are exposed to STEM content in high school settings, out-of-school programming may be particularly important for sparking an interest in the STEM disciplines (Gilliam et al., 2016). Programs that engage high school students in unique STEM experiences will likely continue to play a profound role in recruiting and retaining bright young minds in the increasingly important STEM fields. Summer camps and experiences are especially important for students in urban and low-income areas, where underfunded science curricula and limited access to role models and mentors in STEM are common (Phelan, Harding, & Harper-Leatherman, 2017). Moreover, post-secondary institutions should prioritize programs that engage underrepresented students in hands-on science experiences during the high school years (Phelan et al., 2017).    The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), recognizing the importance of inspiring the next generation of civil engineers, has established a website for precollege outreach, which provides resources including lessons, videos, and activities that promote civil engineering (ASCE, 2020).

The Landscape of Minority High School Students

National trends indicate that high school graduation rates have declined, with African Americans and Hispanic graduation rates being approximately 65% (Heckman & LaFontaine, 2010). Minority students are also far less likely to be college ready. This is particularly the case in underserved minority high schools, where students are the least prepared (ACT, 2015; Bryant, 2015; Moore et al., 2010).  Evidence of poor performance among minority high school students abounds not only in high school graduation rates, but also in SAT scores, Advance Placement courses, and enrollment in advanced mathematics courses (Musoba, 2010; Camara, 2013).  These poor academic performances have been attributed to poor academic preparation.  The National Assessment of Educational Progress (2015) found that overall only 33% of eighth grade students entering high school were proficient in mathematics. The corresponding percentages for African Americans and Hispanics were 13% and 19%, respectively. Since mathematics is the foundation of engineering degrees, there is an urgent need to strengthen these skills at the high school level.  

City Tech’s National Summer Transportation Institute

The National Summer Transportation Institute (NSTI) is an educational initiative developed by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and Department of Transportation (DOT).   A transportation-focused career awareness program, it is designed to introduce high school students to all modes of transportation-related careers, provide academic enhancement activities, and encourage students to pursue transportation-related courses of study at the college/university level. Moreover, the NSTI focuses on addressing future transportation workforce needs by ensuring that the transportation industry has a well-trained, qualified, and diversified workforce.  City Tech was selected for funding by the FHWA and DOT in 2013, 2014, and 2015 to develop a NSTI for underserved urban high school students.  A grant is provided to cover all costs related to the program in order to provide the opportunity to participants on a tuition-free basis.  New York City is the ideal location, since it has both a diverse population and a complex transportation network.  The College’s location in downtown Brooklyn, New York, made it easy to recruit underserved high school students. City Tech is the designated senior college of technology within the 24-unit City University of New York, and it is the largest urban public university system in the nation. The college plays an important role nationally in the education of future scientists, engineers, technologists, and mathematicians for New York City (NYC) and the surrounding areas. 

The mission of the civil engineering technology department at City Tech is to prepare non-traditional students of diverse backgrounds to successfully enter a wide range of careers through a balance of practical knowledge, theory, and professionalism. The department’s mission aligns with the program objectives of the NSTI: to improve STEM skills, to promote awareness among middle and high school students (particularly minority, female, and disadvantaged youth) about transportation careers, and to encourage them to consider transportation-related courses of study in their higher education pursuits.

City Tech’s NSTI summer program includes lectures, field trips, projects, and laboratory activities which promote the growth of each participant and strengthen their academic and social skills.  The academic component is designed to reinforce the mathematics and science skills of the high school participants, to stimulate their interest in the various modes of transportation, and to expose them to new opportunities. The session topics are transportation related and are taught by certified high school teachers with a STEM background. 

The skills enhancement component is critical to the success of the program. The topics covered include critical thinking, problem solving, computer literacy, research, oral and written communication skills, and time management.

The length of the summer program has varied; it was one week long in 2013, two weeks long in 2014, and three weeks long in 2015. The daily program schedule was from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and included a lesson, activity, lunchtime speaker, and field trip.

Curriculum Modules

Five curriculum modules were implemented in the NSTI: (1) Bridges, (2) Land Transportation, (3) Air Transportation, (4) Public Transit and Railroad Transportation, and (5) Water Transportation. A summary of each module and the course objectives is presented below.

Bridges 

This module is designed to introduce participants to different types of bridges, structural forces, and geometry. Participants will be able to differentiate between materials and understand the force systems responsible for the stability of a bridge. The course objectives are to identify types of bridges, to understand the force distribution within a truss bridge, and to design a structurally sound bridge using principles of compression and tension.  

Land transportation

This module introduces the interrelationship of land use and transportation systems. Students will be introduced to concepts of energy, force, motion, speed, velocity, and acceleration. The course objectives are to introduce participants to the process of land use and effective transportation systems, to identify data sources needed to make prudent transportation decisions, and to demonstrate an understanding of land use planning and ways to minimize transportation problems (i.e., congestion, noise, pollution).

Air transportation

This module introduces students to the concepts of flight theories, aircraft performance, flight instruments, gravity, air navigation, and space. Students will be introduced to concepts of force, projectile motion, center of gravity, velocity, and aerodynamics. The course objectives are to introduce participants to flight theories as they relate to airplanes and space and to explore a historic aircraft carrier and space shuttle.

Public transit and railroad transportation

This module describes the history of railroads and public transit.  Participants will be able to summarize advantages and disadvantages of public transit systems in use today, in particular in the New York City area. The course objectives are to explore the social history of New York City, subway and station design, transit development, construction, and impact over time.

Water transportation 

This module is designed to give participants an opportunity to learn the fundamental regulations and responsibilities of safe water transportation. Students will be introduced to the concepts of buoyancy and density, as well as to the engineering design process. The course objectives are to inform participants of the best water travel practices, and to identify possible threats and solutions to promote safe waterways.

Speakers

Participants were able to interact with professionals in the transportation field.  These professionals were invited guest speakers sharing their own academic experiences and challenges with the participants while highlighting their careers and promoting the field of transportation. Speakers were representative of the various fields related to transportation and engineering.  

Staff

The program staff consists of a project director, two instructors, and two academic aides.  The primary role of the project director is to develop, implement, and direct all phases of the program, schedule, and budget and to supervise the program staff, develop curriculum, and provide laboratory activities and resource materials.

The primary role of the instructors is to provide daily academic instruction, interact with participants and administrative staff, and develop curriculum.  The instructors are certified high school teachers, and as such have the training and background required to deliver the STEM-focused lessons and activities.  

The academic aides assist the instructors throughout the day, set up laboratory activities, assist with coordination of field trips, and assist with orientation and closing activities. The academic aides are typically graduates of the civil engineering technology associate degree program at City Tech.  The academic aides are also recruited from a group of trained peer leaders on campus.  As peer leaders the academic aides bring to the program their knowledge of pedagogy and techniques for group facilitation. 

Activities

The curriculum is reinforced with projects and laboratory activities. Participants are engaged in the engineering design process through hands-on activities and computer simulation applications.  Computer-based activities include simulating bridge building and city planning.  Hands-on activities include building a model bridge, solar car, boat, and rocket.  The activities were preceded by a lesson or guest speaker introducing the relevant topics and careers in transportation.  Participants worked both independently and collaboratively to complete the projects in preparation for testing and display. 

Field Trips

Several field trips were organized during the NSTI. The participants had the opportunity to visit the Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum, the NYC Transit Museum, the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and the U.S. Coast Guard Command Center, as well as John F. Kennedy International Airport.  Each trip included a customized tour for the group aligned with the program focus of transportation and engineering. 

Sample schedules are included as Figures 1 and 2. 

Week 1 Sample Schedule
Week 1 Sample Schedule
Student Eligibility, Recruitment and Selection

At the time of participation, applicants must be a rising ninth, tenth, eleventh, or twelfth grader, qualify for enrollment in algebra, and hold a minimum cumulative GPA of 2.0 on a 4.0 scale.  Graduates of the NSTI program are not eligible to repeat the program.  The students are primarily recruited from City Poly High School and STEP-UP, a program of the McSilver Institute for Poverty Policy and Research. City Poly High School opened in September 2009 as one of four state-approved career and technical education (CTE) demonstration sites in New York City.  The New York State Department of Education (NYSED) indicates that the 2015–2016 student demographics for City Poly were as follows: 75% black, 16% Hispanic, 4% Asian, 3% White, and 2% Other. In addition, 76% of the student population were economically disadvantaged (NYSED 2016).  STEP-UP is a program designed by African-American and Latino adolescents (14 to 17 years of age) experiencing significant academic, social, and emotional issues for teens in similar circumstances. The STEP-UP participants were from Central Park East (CPE) High School. The NYSED has supplied the following demographics for CPE students in 2015–2016: 24% Black, 62% Hispanic, 8% Asian, 4% White, and 1% Other. Eighty-nine percent of the student population are economically disadvantaged (NYSED, 2016). These demographics are representative of underserved high school students. 

Applicants submit a complete application with one letter of recommendation from a teacher or guidance counselor and a statement regarding their reasons for wanting to participate in the program and how the NSTI can assist in meeting their academic and career goals.  The program director selects a cohort of 20 students, and a select number of applicants may be placed on a waiting list.  

Methodology

Participants

A total of 41 high school students participated in the NSTI from years 2013-2015.  There were 12 participants in 2013, which was a one-week program, 15 in 2014, which was a two-week program, and 14 in 2015, which was a three-week program. There were at total of 24 (58.5%) males and 17 (41.5%) females.  Among the 41 high school students, 22 (53.7%) identified themselves as African American (non-Hispanic), eight (19.5%) as Hispanic, nine (22.0%) as Asian/Pacific Islander, two (4.9%) as Caucasian, and one failed to respond. The average age of the participants was 15.7 years.  The average New York State Regent Mathematics and Science scores of the participants were 82.9 and 80.0, respectively. 

Data analysis

On the last day of the NSTI, the high school students were asked to respond to statements regarding four areas: (1) speakers, (2) staff, (3) activities, and (4) field trips. A Likert scale with 1 indicating “strongly disagree” and 4 indicating “strongly agree” was used.  Table 1 is a summary of the responses by year and collectively over the three years.  

A one-way analysis of variance (ANOVA) was used to determine whether the mean responses were statistically significant among the years.  Table 2 lists the responses that showed statistically significant differences. A Tukey test was used to follow up to determine the mean differences between each year.  Overall the responses of the participants in 2014 and 2015 were most strongly positive to the statements that the speakers were well organized, the students were academically challenged by the speakers, the speakers responded well to the questions posed to them, and the staff was very interested in the students’ career awareness. The activities and the field trips statements were also evaluated more positively by the 2014 and 2015 groups than the 2013 group.  

Some of the high school students’ reflections regarding the NSTI: 

The U.S. Coast Guard trip was fun. It made me consider joining! (2013 participant) 

John F. Kennedy Airport trip was a very new experience.  The tour showed me there [were] more [jobs] in air transportation. (2013 participant)

I was very interested in Intelligent Transportation Systems; there were more things about information and technology and how it is used in transportation. (2013 participant)

In this first week, I have already learned a lot about a diverse range of topics from bridges, trains and kites. My favorite experience in the program so far has been making a kite constructed of string, straws and tissue paper, with my partner. I really enjoyed building a workable kite from few materials and being able to test the invention later. I had never really built something from nothing. The project also forced me to work with and depend on my partner. It was fun to collaborate and we were really proud with the end product. (2015 participant) 

Table 1: Means and Standard Deviations for Students Satisfaction Survey Responses by Year
Table 2: One-way ANOVA Results

Conclusion

The results of the study showed high school students participating in the NSTI responded positively to the program.  The participants felt academically challenged by the speakers, and they felt strongly that the speakers were able to address their questions and concerns. Students benefit from role models in STEM and can expand their interest in STEM by exposure to informal STEM-related learning opportunities (Weber, 2011).  Hands-on activities can stimulate interest in STEM and help students gain confidence in their ability to approach STEM activities (Colvin, Lyden, & León de la Barra, 2013; Ziaeefard, Miller, Rastgaar, & Mahmoudian, 2017).  The students also found the field trips very informative.  Many underserved students do not have the opportunity to be exposed to various careers, and field trips allow them to connect the importance of civil engineering to the real world.   

This study also found that the length of the summer program made a difference in the participants’ responses.  The participants responded more positively to the speakers, staff, activities, and field trips when the program was either two or three weeks long.  Better feedback responses came from the participants in the two-week program.

Lessons Learned

The NSTI offers an opportunity for students to be exposed to civil engineering and transportation fields while reinforcing their math and science skills.  The most significant challenge of the program is recruitment, since the average high school student may not recognize the value of a STEM summer program. Several outreach efforts to advisors, parents, and counselors were made to encourage participation. The three-week program provided the students with one high school elective credit; however, it was difficult for students to commit for a three-week period because many of them had summer jobs.  For two consecutive years, the program offered participants a stipend which helped offset the costs of participation.  In 2015 the guidelines removed the allowable costs of stipends making recruitment more challenging.  Students from these underrepresented populations residing in the five boroughs typically have to work during the summer to cover their expenses and assist their families.  Participation in the NSTI offers a wonderful opportunity; however, it means the students have no income for the duration of their participation, and they have the added the cost of transportation.  This study reinforces that stipends will allow for greater diversity in participation.  

Epilogue

City Tech was selected to host the NSTI in July 2020; however, due to the COVID-19 pandemic the program was offered in a virtual platform. The curriculum remained the same, participants were expected to be available Monday–Friday from 9 a.m.–4 p.m. during the two-week period.  Lessons and guest lectures were delivered via Zoom. Field Trips were delivered as virtual reality field trips using available technology.  Students were provided a supply kit to complete projects individually and participated remotely in software simulations.  In order to ensure that all eligible applicants could participate in the program, students were provided the opportunity to obtain a loaner Chromebook for the duration of the program.  In addition, a stipend was provided to each participant to offset the loss of income they might incur by participating in the program.  The program was a success and students were able to benefit from the experience in an alternate format. 

Acknowledgements

The authors thank the Federal Highway Administration and the Department of Transportation for their support and the many speakers throughout the years for their time.  We also acknowledge the instructors, Wandy Chang, Henry Arias, and Steven Coyle for their dedication to the program.

This project report is dedicated in loving memory of Janet Liou-Mark, a role model and a champion for all who were fortunate enough to know her.

Authors

Melanie Villatoro

Melanie Villatoro is an associate professor in the Department of Construction Management and Civil Engineering Technology at the New York City College of Technology (City Tech). She earned her BE in Civil Engineering from the Cooper Union and her MS in Geotechnical Engineering from Columbia University. Her outreach events target groups underrepresented in STEM with the goal of increasing the number of diverse qualified students entering the fields of STEM, particularly engineering.

 

 

Janet Liou-Mark

Janet Liou-Mark is a professor of mathematics at City Tech, and she holds a PhD in Mathematics Education. Her research focuses on developing and evaluating programs that help women and underrepresented minority and first-generation college students to remain in school and successfully graduate with STEM degrees. She is the interim director of Faculty Commons.

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