Gasping, yelling, skipping, jumping. On a recent Saturday walk to UNC Greensboro’s wetlands, the kids were joyous about stormwater runoff. Kids who never considered themselves “science people.” Kids without many chances to explore activities outside of school.

“These middle school youth were delving into, problem-solving and putting emotional and intellectual energy into stormwater. I mean, stormwater!” said Dr. Heidi Carlone, professor of science education and the Hooks Distinguished Professor of STEM Education.

The kids spent four Saturdays in February and March on campus as part of “BRIDGES for socio-environmental good: BRoadening Identities for Diverse Groups Engaging with STEM,” a project that was awarded $1 million from the National Science Foundation. Carlone is principal investigator, working with co-principal investigators Dr. Lakshmi Iyer, professor of information systems at Appalachian State University, and Dr. Sara Heredia, assistant professor of science education at UNCG.

Youth were identified for the “Saturday Academies” from schools highly impacted by poverty in Randolph and Rockingham Counties. The goals of the project are threefold: 1. Create a STEM-integrated teaching model that expands middle school youth’s STEM identities and engages them in socioenvironmental problems; 2. Study the effectiveness of the BRIDGES model in triggering and sustaining youths’ STEM-related identity work; and 3. Study the effectiveness of the BRIDGES program in triggering and sustaining teachers’ STEM professional learning.

“We want to close opportunity gaps and identity gaps. We’re not trying to change youth to fit into STEM,” Carlone said. “Our project is designed to connect all kinds of learners, with diverse interests and prior experiences to STEM. We’re saying that who you are, what you’re interested in, and what excites you can be enriched by a STEM-oriented approach, and your talents can enrich STEM.”

The Saturday Academies, designed with a partnership with Stormwater Smart (from the Piedmont Triad Regional Council), gave youth a chance to dig into the issue of stormwater runoff from different perspectives. They became conservationists, altruists, analysts, strategists, engineers, designers and “tinkerers.” They built websites and sand filters, and designed animation and infographics to educate others about the importance of managing stormwater runoff.

“Youth, when given the opportunity to think, to work together, to problem-solve, to be creative, to be passionate, to explore their passions, they take it up and run with it,” Carlone said.

The Saturday Academies are just one part of the NSF project, with other strategies to include a summer residential camp, a mentoring program, after-school STEM clubs, teacher professional development and career counseling.

Carlone and her colleagues believe this kind of disciplinary integration is necessary for youth to consider possible STEM pathways for their futures.

“The project has been phenomenal so far,” Carlone said. “If people saw youth engaged the way they did in the BRIDGES Saturday Academies, they would have no worries about the future of this country and whose hands it’s in.”

 

Story by Elizabeth L. Harrison, University Communications
Photography courtesy of Heidi Carlone