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Spreading STEM, Near and Far

Spreading STEM, Near and Far

An innovative grant from the National Science Foundation allows the Academy to scale a simple idea for maximum impact.

Albert Einstein, a past Academy member, famously said, "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler." It was with this sentiment that the Academy, in 2010, approached two problems that hit close to home:

  • middle school students from low-income districts in New York City were not getting enough STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) in their school days, and
  • young scientists were lacking opportunities to learn how to teach, as well as interact with their surrounding communities, as they pursued their scientific research.

Fast-forward two years later: In August 2012, the Academy and the State University of New York (SUNY) received a prestigious grant, totaling $2.95 million, from the National Science Foundation (NSF). The grant will allow the Academy to expand its Afterschool STEM Mentoring Program—an elegant solution to the above problems—throughout New York State.

By training local graduate students and postdoctoral researchers to provide middle school students from low-income districts with informal, hands-on STEM education, students receive much needed exposure to STEM subjects and young scientists develop critical teaching and mentoring skills.

As part of the new grant, the Academy will tap SUNY's rich network of graduate and postdoctoral students in STEM fields to serve as mentors in local afterschool programs. Regional coordinators will be trained on each participating SUNY campus to manage the relationships between the SUNY mentors and the community-based organizations that run the afterschool programs—a critical intermediary role the Academy has mastered in New York City and Newark, NJ.

Through the NSF research grant the Academy will evaluate the most effective tactics for scaling the afterschool program, with the aim that the New York State project will serve as a pilot for a national scale-up. Three SUNY campuses—SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, the University at Albany College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering in the Capital District, and SUNYIT in Utica—will be used as initial locations, with more to follow in subsequent years.

One outcome of the study will be a "best practices guide" focusing on the Afterschool STEM Mentoring Program.

For the past two years, the Academy has successfully leveraged its relationships with community-based organizations and major universities to manage a program that brings together graduate students and middle school students. The graduate students are part of the Academy's Science Alliance, which provides memberships and career development programming for young scientists. The middle school students are part of community-based afterschool programs, such as those run by NYC's Department of Youth and Community Development.

Meghan Groome, director of K-12 Education at the Academy, feels that working within existing afterschool programs is ideal due to curriculum flexibility, as well as the natural cultivation of mentor-mentee relationships.

Teaching secondary school students is new for many of the young scientists—most have little or no experience imparting their STEM knowledge to younger generations. It is for this reason that SUNY Empire State College will be tasked with creating an online course for the new SUNY mentors that focuses on pedagogy and mentorship basics. This course will be similar to in-person courses that the Academy staff runs for NYC-based mentors.

By receiving specific training on pedagogy and mentorship, the young scientists will become better teachers and researchers, and some many even go on to choose teaching as a career. Students, meanwhile, will be inspired by their mentors—learning that they themselves can aspire to careers in STEM fields.

Through the NSF grant, the teams at the Academy and SUNY believe they can scale a simple idea into a state-wide success.

Diana Friedman is the executive editor of The New York Academy of Sciences Magazine.


The Academy thanks all who have generously supported
the Afterschool STEM Mentoring Program

 Achelis and Bodman Foundations
Carnegie Corporation of New York
Fordham Street Foundation
Goldman Sachs Gives, Paul Walker
The William Randolph
Hearst Foundations
Infosys Foundation USA
The Pamela B. and Thomas C. Jackson Fund
Drs. Gabrielle Reem and Herbert Kayden
Laurie J. Landeau
Martin Leibowitz
National Science Foundation
New York City Department of Cultural Affairs
New York Community Trust
Stavros Niarchos Foundation
The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation
Staten Island Foundation
Verizon Foundation
The Laura B. Vogler Foundation


The Afterschool STEM Mentoring Program is supported in part by the National Science Foundation (DRL-1223303). Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.