Initial Publication Date: March 10, 2017

Early Engagement in Research: key to STEM retention Pilot

Project website:

Shared Vision

Project Summary

This is a two-year "Inclusion across the Nation of Communities of Learners of Underrepresented Discoverers in Engineering and Science" (INCLUDES) Design and Development Launch Pilot targeting high school students in the Hudson Valley, including the New York Metropolitan Area. It will support a network of institutional partners that are committed to providing internship and mentoring opportunities to youths interested in authentic research projects. The proposed work will build on a current research immersion program--the Secondary School Field Research Program (SSFRP) at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. SSFRP serves high school students, mainly from underrepresented and underserved communities, who work with college students, science teachers, and researchers around a specific science problem. Over the past decade, the program has had demonstrable impact, including attendance to college, and students' selection of STEM majors. Tracking data indicates that retention rates of its alumni in four-year colleges are well above the norm, and a significant fraction of early participants are now in graduate programs in science or engineering. The program has surpassed all expectations in its effectiveness at engaging underserved populations in science and promoting entry into college, recruitment into STEM majors, and retention through undergraduate and into graduate studies. Hence, the project's overall goal will be to extend and adapt the research-immersive summer internship model through an alliance with peer research institutions, school districts and networks, public land and resource management agencies, private funding agencies, informal educational institutions, and experts in pedagogical modeling, metrics, and evaluation. Focused on earth and environmental sciences, the summer and year-round mentoring model will allow high school students to work in research teams led by college students and teachers under the direction of research scientists. The mentoring model will be multilayered, with peer, near-peer, and researcher-student relationships interweaving throughout the learning process.

The project has formulated a set of testable explanatory hypotheses:

  1. Beyond specific subject knowledge, success rests on increased student engagement in a community of practice, with near-peer mentors, teachers, and scientists in the context of scientific research;
  2. The intensity of engagement also shifts the students' vision of their future to include higher education, and specifically to imagine and move toward a STEM career; and
  3. Early engagement, before students attend college, is critical because high school is where students form patterns of engagement and capacities related to science learning.

Thus, the immediate goal of the two-year plan will be to create approximately 11 research internship programs focused on earth and environmental sciences, and to build the networks for growth through engagement with a wider community of educational partners. The main focus of this approach will be removing barriers between high school students and STEM organizations, and adapting the current mentoring model at Columbia University to the specific cultures of other research groups and internship programs throughout the lower Hudson Valley. The team has already assembled a diverse set of partners committed to broadening participation in STEM using a collective impact approach to early engagement in project-based learning. Research partners will provide the mentors, research projects, and laboratory facilities. The educational network partners will provide access for students, particularly those from under-resourced communities to participate, as well as participation opportunities for interested teachers. Informal learning organizations will provide access to field and research sites, along with research dissemination opportunities. In Year 1, the project will conduct a series of development workshops for partners already in place and foster the formation of new partnership clusters according to shared interest, complementary resources and geographic proximity. The workshops will provide a forum for partners to learn about each other's visions, values, challenges, and existing structures, while working through theoretical and practical issues related to STEM engagement for young investigators. In Year 2, the project will target the implementation of the internship programs at various sites according to the agreed-upon goals, program model, research projects, recruitment and retention strategy, staff training, data collection, and evaluation plans. An external evaluator will address both the formative and summative evaluation of the effort directed toward examining the three project's hypotheses concerning the educational impacts of scientific research on student engagement, extent of the immersion, and overall effectiveness of the programs.

Project Materials

Principal Investigators

  • Robert Newton, PI, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Columbia University,
  • Cassie Xu, co-PI, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Columbia University,