For undergraduates, UConn has launched numerous initiatives. The University has created a STEM Scholars community within the school’s Honors Program, as well as a STEM Living and Learning Community, where students can live with other students who share their interests.
In fact, some of the surest ways to spark interest in STEM fields is one-on-one interactions – either between peers or between young people and college students.
For the K-12 population, for example, UConn offers Multiply Your Options, a workshop for eighth-grade girls. The University also hosts the Science Olympiad, a day-long STEM competition for high schoolers with a series of science challenges, organized like an Olympic track meet.
“The Science Olympiad is a great example of the ways UConn is developing the pipeline of Connecticut students prepared to go to college and study STEM disciplines,” said President Susan Herbst, after attending one year. “These events give high-schoolers an opportunity to see what science is all about at the university level.”
These and other outreach programs have created a strong, vibrant student community that is quickly recognized by potential students who visit and take part in different programs, says Kevin McLaughlin, director of UConn’s Engineering Diversity and Outreach Center.
“It’s all about role modeling,” says McLaughlin. “When we go out and speak to middle school or high school students, we want them to hear about our programs, not from someone from another generation, but from someone they can connect with, someone who understands the next step in their lives – and that’s going to college.”
“UConn is developing the pipeline of Connecticut students prepared to go to college and study STEM disciplines.”
Before he moved from the College of Agriculture, Health, and Natural Resources to the Provost's Office, Volin launched a STEM program for high school students known as the Natural Resources Conservation Academy that has led to many students matriculating at UConn.
The program was based on Volin's desire to connect young people to conservation biology in a deliberate way and get them into the pipeline: “I thought if we get some of these before college, we can make great strides,” he says.
Nearly 150 teenagers have gone through the program in the six years since. And the Academy has led to two offshoots – one partnering high school students and professionals on community projects, and another working with middle and high school teachers to develop educational modules they can incorporate in their classrooms.
Another new program was started recently by a UConn student who herself benefited from one of the University's STEM outreach programs.
Callie Robinson ’19 (ENG) was inspired to start a program for high school girls based on her own positive experience in the School of Engineering's BRIDGE program.
Before her first year at UConn, Robinson took part in the five-week intensive summer program for students who are underrepresented in engineering fields. The program introduces incoming freshmen to future engineering careers, and reviews keys concepts in math, chemistry, physics, and computing to help them prepare for what lies ahead.
“The BRIDGE program was an amazing, vigorous, program that was a great way to get connected with the professors,” says Robinson, whose academic focus is on computer science and engineering. “It made a big impact for me. I know these diversity and outreach programs have really made an impact on other students too. They can redirect someone’s life.”
With that in mind, this summer Robinson and classmate Ashley Leung ’19 (ENG) launched their own program: SPARK, a three-week engineering camp for female high school students. Each week of the new program focused on a different subject area: week one covered computer coding skills; week two, robotics; and week three, 3-D printing. Participants could join one, two, or even all three sessions.
“I know these diversity and outreach programs ... can redirect someone’s life.”
“We’d love it to go forward again next year,” says Robinson. “We want it to continue to grow in numbers like our other programs have.”
And grow like the number of people in the STEM pipeline has.
In Szarek's life, her progression through the pipeline may soon reach an important milestone. In collaboration with Professor David Pierce, she is doing research that may result in an academic paper they can submit to a peer-reviewed journal.
"Hopefully by the end of the year we'll have something to submit," she says. "It's kind of weird thinking my name is going to be on a scientific paper!"