- Over our four year study, more than 200 high school youth participated in a 7-week summer research experience during which they designed and carried out urban ecology research under the guidance of STEM mentors.
- Our longitudinal study indicated that the hands-on research experiences increased youths’ science interest, intentions to pursue STEM majors in college, and perceptions that STEM would be part of their future careers. These sustained effects were evident more than two years after the program.
- Positive impacts on STEM intentions were similar for youth who entered the program very interested in science, as well as those with relatively lower pre-program science interest.
- Mentoring had strong positive relationships with youth’s sense of social connection, helping youth establish a sense of belonging in STEM by establishing social connections with their mentors and like-minded peers.
STEM careers are increasingly common in today’s economy, with greater job opportunities and salaries available for STEM workers. Despite increasing demand and positive career outlooks, youth from backgrounds traditionally underrepresented in STEM (e.g., women, Black and Latinx youth) tend to disengage with science at disproportionately higher rates than their well-represented peers. This disengagement is not from lack of initial interest, but rather the many hurdles that minority youth must negotiate to persist in STEM fields, including a lack of STEM role models, fewer authentic science experiences, and under-emphasis on the value of science to society.
Our study investigated the impact of a research mentoring program, Project TRUE (Teens Researching Urban Ecology), on the STEM trajectories of minority youth during the critical transition from high school to college. Funded by the National Science Foundation’s Advancing Informal Science Learning program, the Project TRUE research aimed to understand how authentic science research and mentorship affected the STEM trajectories of high school youth from backgrounds traditionally underrepresented in the sciences. The research concluded in 2020.
What are the effects of authentic research experiences and mentoring on the STEM trajectories of high school youth immediately after Project TRUE and multiple years after participation?
We collected surveys from 189 youth before and up to three years after participating in Project TRUE. The survey instruments included modules to assess youths’ program experience and target outcomes:
- The Science Engagement Scale assessed participants’ attitudes towards science and participation in science-related activities.
- The Relationship Quality Scale (Rhodes, 2005) assessed mentor quality, including perceived mentor support, approachableness, and competence.
- The Basic Psychological Needs Satisfaction / Frustration Scale (BPNSF; Chen et al., 2015) measured how the programmatic experience contributed to youths’ internal motivation, including feelings of competence, relatedness, and autonomy.
- We used three close-ended questions to measure the influence of key components of the program, specifically how participation in Project TRUE, the research experience, and mentorship positively influenced youth’s plans for the future. Youth explained their responses in open-ended follow up questions.
- We included open-ended questions about academic interests, asking respondents to list their intended academic major before and after participation in Project TRUE.
Across all time points, youth commonly described how Project TRUE increased their science interest, science skill development, and soft skill development. Our findings were consistent after controlling for initial science engagement, indicating that a research experience generated positive STEM outcomes for youth who entered the program very interested in science, as well as those with relatively lower participation. Youths’ interest in STEM majors decreased over time, starting high (immediately after the program, 85% planned on a STEM major) and decreasing slightly by their sophomore and junior years of college (77% and 57% respectively). Despite this decline, across all time points, youth rated the influence of their Project TRUE research experience highly, suggesting that it had an effective, sustained influence multiple years after the program.
In contrast to research experiences, mentoring did not show strong impacts on science interest or intentions to pursue STEM. It did, however, have strong positive relationships with youths’ sense of social connection, suggesting a more indirect influence on youths’ STEM identities and trajectories. This indirect influence may occur because mentoring helps youth establish a sense of belonging in STEM by establishing social connections with mentors and like-minded peers. Feelings of integration or belongingness to the community appear closely associated with the perceived benefits of programs aimed at increased retention of underrepresented youth in college and are tied to academic outcomes.
- Aloisio et al., 2018 describes the Project TRUE research mentoring model.
- Beauchamp et al.,2021 describes the effects of research and mentoring on underrepresented youths’ STEM persistence into college.
- Aloisio et al, 2022 describes the impact of Project TRUE on undergraduate mentors who are supporting a team of high school students as they conduct research projects for the first time.
- Heimlich et al, 2022 describes a new survey method used to measure the impact of Project TRUE on academic trajectories while accounting for the many other influences on youth decision-making.
- Our Mentor Training Curriculum covers topics critical for working with youth, including active listening and building constructive group dynamics.
- Project Profile on informalscience.org includes evaluation, research, and knowledge-building reports.