UConn's STEM Pipeline

By Kristen Cole

A simple experiment involving a water bottle filled with nitrogen and a few bendable drinking straws may be all it takes to spark an interest in science, according to Phoebe Szarek.

“I think a lot of kids don’t realize what’s possible until they see the options open to them.”

- Phoebe Szarek

Which is why Szarek often demonstrated the "Hero's Engine" when she visited high schools around the state as a delegate of the School of Engineering's Ambassador Program. Depending on how students bent the straws, the little steam engine spun in various ways, fulfilling Szarek's goal of generating interest in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).

"I really enjoy science and I wanted to share that," says Szarek '17 (ENG), of her experience as an undergraduate engineering ambassador. "I think a lot of kids don't realize what's possible until they see the options open to them."

Since she was in eighth-grade in Tolland, Szarek, 22, has been part of the STEM pipeline, a term used to describe the educational pathway for students into the four broadly defined fields.

Phoebe Szarek '17 (ENG) a graduate student, helps eighth grade girls from Corpus Christi school in Wetherfield build electric motors during the Multiply Your Options conference at the Student Union on Oct. 13, 2017. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

From Eighth-grader to Ph.D. Candidate

As a middle-schooler, Szarek became interested in the sciences when she took part in a day-long program for girls, Multiply Your Options, at the state's flagship university and met college students. "What really interested me was how they bonded over their love of engineering," she says. Later, as a UConn undergraduate in biomedical engineering, she volunteered as a mentor in the same program.

Now as a doctoral student, she participates in the Women in Engineering Day by offering tours of the lab where she is designing a miniature testing device for cartilage that can be used under a microscope.

Just as Szarek's interest in science built over time, so has the national, state, and university dialogue about the importance of filling the STEM pipeline.

The National Demand for Skilled Workers

"Increasing STEM education has been a national conversation for quite some time in response to the recognition of the increasing demand for high-tech products and services, and the realization that there aren’t sufficient numbers of skilled workers to fill the demand today, much less tomorrow’s increased demand," says John Volin, UConn's vice provost for academic affairs.

Some argue that federal interest in scientific and technical literacy goes back to the nation’s founding. They point to President George Washington and his first State of the Union address, when he called on Congress to promote scientific knowledge, saying, “there is nothing that can better deserve your patronage than the promotion of science and literature."

In modern U.S. history, the relationship between STEM education and national prosperity and power received attention when the Soviet Union launched the Sputnik satellite in the 1950s.

More recently, a 1997 report “Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Bright Economic Future,” warned policymakers that perceived weaknesses in the existing U.S. STEM education system were a threat to the nation.

That report led, in part, to the America COMPETES Act under President George W. Bush, which was reauthorized and signed into law by President Barack Obama. It was an act “to invest in innovation through research and development, and to improve the competitiveness of the United States,” write the Congressional Research Service authors of a 2012 report “STEM Education: A Primer.”

Ekow Dadzie '18 (CAHNR) talks about his project titled "LPS-associated inflammatory cytokine responses during exercise-heat stress" at the ITE Building as part of the UConn McNair Scholars Program Annual Summer Research Poster Exhibit on July 26, 2017. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)
Income Segregation and Achievement" at the ITE Building as part of the UConn McNair Scholars Program Annual Summer Research Poster Exhibit on July 26, 2017. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

Next Generation Connecticut

Here in Connecticut, the state also took deliberate action to fill the STEM pipeline in an effort to drive economic growth and vitality, with an initiative supported by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and the General Assembly that became known as Next Generation (Next Gen) Connecticut.

The initiative builds on established STEM programs at UConn and seeks to expand educational opportunities, research, and innovation in STEM disciplines, with the goal of leveraging the strength and resources of the university to build Connecticut’s future workforce, create jobs, and invigorate the state’s economy.

"Connecticut's economy depends on a high-tech, skilled labor force, and UConn is a major contributor to this overall effort," says Volin. "Among our STEM majors from this state, more than 90 percent find jobs in the state."

Through Next Gen Connecticut, UConn has made strategic investments, including the expansion of STEM facilities. UConn’s newest, the five-story Engineering and Science Building, provides room for some of the fastest growing research fields – systems genomics, biomedical sciences, robotics, cyber-physical systems (think drones), and virtual reality technology. It is the first structure on the Storrs campus to utilize an “open lab” concept for research, to encourage collaboration among scientists from different disciplines and foster innovation.

Also this year, a Congressional delegation helped secure a three-year, $1.3 million grant from the Office of Naval Research for UConn. The funding has fueled the launch of an undersea engineering concentration to train a new generation of highly skilled naval engineers to help maintain the state’s future economic growth.

A youngster gets an introduction to vegetable growing at the 4-H Auer Farm. Through the longstanding 4-H program, UConn extension specialists and students run STEM educational outreach for youth, including the very young. In 2016, 4-H had nearly 17,000 youth members. (Extension Staff/UConn Photo)

Role Modeling

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.”

- President Susan Herbst

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.”

- Callie Robinson

“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!"