How can more K-12 students have a career in STEM? Tarrant County groups have a plan.

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Careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics are in high demand even during the pandemic. However, access to STEM education is still a problem for many in underrepresented communities.

Black and Hispanic adults are less likely to earn a degree in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) than other degree fields, according to a 2021 analysis by the Pew Research Center.

Harlan Jones, director of the Institute for Health Disparities at the University of North Texas Health Science Center (UNTHSC), has seen the need for diversity first-hand as an African-American and participant in a pathway program. He said diversity can play a role in the innovation and success of new developments in STEM and help nurture a healthier community for everyone.

“A diverse community brings diversity in thought,” Jones said. “It brings creative solutions to complex questions in particular to STEM areas.”

UNTHSC, community organizations and schools in Tarrant County are working to provide better access to STEM education for K-12 students in order to increase diversity in the field. Pathway programs have led students to go into medical schools, graduate programs, and seek careers in finance.

Creating a pathway for K-12 students

A 2018 report by the American Society for Engineering Education stated some underrepresented groups made up only a few of the bachelor degrees earned in the field. Only 11% of bachelor degrees earned were from Hispanic graduates. Black graduates made up 4% of the degrees earned while Native Americans and Pacific Islanders made up less than 1%.

The Institute for Health Disparities at the University of North Texas Health Science Center has worked to increase diversity in the STEM field for several years. The institute offers programs helping children in K-12, undergraduate and graduate students, and faculty have access to a career in the field.

Jamboor K. Vishwanatha, regents professor and vice president of diversity and international programs, said the university has found that the area that it can make the biggest impact is K-12 and providing more children opportunities to learn about STEM.

The Texas Academy of Biological Sciences was created through a collaboration with UNTHSC, Fort Worth Independent School District, University of North Texas and Tarrant County College. The high school prepares students who are interested in having a career in various fields.

UNTHSC has also created after-school programs for students in the Fort Worth school district and surrounding areas. Students in the Arlington Independent School District have the opportunity to be matched with graduate students for coaching.

The curriculum for elementary and middle school students works to create enthusiasm. Students participate in projects to help them understand what a person working in biomedical sciences does during their job. High school students can participate in mentorships with graduate students and understand how research is done.

“Our students are very enthusiastic about mentoring and being role models for K-12 students,” Vishwanatha said.

Many students in the K-12 program have gone on to participate in UNTHSC’s undergraduate summer programs, and become graduate students and faculty members.

The center is hoping to provide more networking opportunities for K-12 students. Jones said networking helps with persistence and success in a career field.

“We need to be intervening,” Vishwanatha said. “We need to be providing the mentorships.”

Bringing STEM learning into neighborhoods

During the pandemic, many students were having to do virtual schooling.

The Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Tarrant County began using four renovated buses as mobile clubhouses to go into neighborhoods where students needed help. John Rosales, senior director of branches, said the organization realized during the pandemic that its mobile programming was a good tool to implement STEM. Many students are needing opportunities to socialize, and learn problem solving and collaboration skills.

Rosales said the organization noticed before the pandemic that some students had little access to STEM learning through its after school programs. The mobile clubhouses help bridge the academic gap.

“Even though youth are back in schools now, we are continuing with this platform,” Rosales said. “There’s such a demand from school districts and apartment complexes.”

Students participate in various types of activities involving problem solving and technology. They may look at things from an engineering perspective to build a bridge or tower. Robotics and coding teaches the students to not view the world only as an “user” but as designers and creators.

“Because now they have had the experience to know what makes things move, what makes things operate, and what makes things tick,” Rosales said.

The organization has seen former students pursue careers in health sciences and nursing, and finance.

Hope Farm, an organization that provides long-term leadership development for boys living in Fort Worth’s Como and Morningside neighborhoods, created a curriculum focusing on the sciences, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics.

Mario Choice, interim leadership program director at the Morningside campus, said staff integrate the subjects into their curriculum each month.

“They became more excited about technology and science,” Choice said.

Students have put together model cars, made catapults and used robotic kits. Choice said some kids have expressed interest in becoming astronauts or engineers.

Before the pandemic, a professor came to Hope Farm to provide additional STEM programming for students.

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