The relative shortage of near peers and relatable mentors for first generation college students and underrepresented student populations inhibits them from reaching their maximal potential. By establishing a pipeline to integrate real world research experiences in an academic and/or STEM-intensive commercial setting for both students (grades 9-12) and STEM teachers (grades 5-12) we expect to deliver opportunities for STEM education typically neglected for underserved populations. The STEM Through Authentic Research Training (START) program is designed to integrate academia, the secondary education system and commercial interests toward identifying and nurturing STEM proficient students promoting success at the college level and beyond.
The increasing importance of technology in contemporary society necessitates a STEM literate population. This represents a challenge for traditionally underrepresented populations (people of color, individuals with disabilities, individuals in less affluent communities) impacting upward social mobility. Often, members of these groups are doubly disadvantaged, as the few who become first generation college students often lack a roadmap for success through family, near peers and potential mentors. Success for this population, representing a highly motivated group, needs to be nurtured to embrace and advance STEM disciplines, before they reach their college classrooms. This necessitates the education not only of students, but their teachers, providing synergies in teaching and learning to empower students to avail of opportunities perceived as being beyond their reach. We hypothesize that bridging this expanding gap requires an integrated program bringing together academic, social and real-world professional experiences to establish a pipeline linking success in middle/high school to success for first generation college students and beyond. Such a pipeline will generate not only STEM-proficient citizens but also a cadre of near peers to motivate by example. With this central premise we have formed the STEM Through Authentic Research and Training (START) Program to identify recruit and retaining traditionally underrepresented populations by providing year-round authentic research opportunities and professional development for high school students (grades 9-12) and middle and secondary STEM teachers (grades 5-12). START represents a partnership between the University of Kentucky providing opportunities for STEM research, STEAM Academy and The Academies of Lexington, a partnership with the Fayette County Public Schools- focused on changing the traditional didactic model for STEM instruction, the KY-WV LSAMP program an NSF-funded consortium led by UK including over 10 diverse academic institutions supporting undergraduate research aimed at increasing the representation and overall success of traditionally underrepresented populations in STEM disciplines. START establishes a natural pipeline to the collegiate level by virtue of the alliance with KY-WV LSAMP and its member institutions. Finally, we have recruited Space Tango, a Lexington STEM start-up company which builds and integrates systems for scientific and biomedical research under microgravity conditions on the international space station. As such, a spectrum of research opportunities, from the molecular and microscopic level in participating UK STEM laboratories to the vastness of space itself afforded by Space Tango provide an exciting palate of opportunities for traditionally underrepresented students and the teachers responsible for their STEM education. We believe that the integration of real world authentic research opportunities in the context of overall STEM education via a unique partnership between academia, educational and commercial entities will motivate underrepresented student populations to levels of achievement they often believe are beyond their horizons.