April 8, 2019

A summer steeped in STEM for high school juniors

Cathy Beuten | CU System

Pre-collegiate program group photo
The University of Colorado pre-collegiate programs are rolling full ‘STEM’ ahead with the growth of a science, technology, engineering and math program offered to high schoolers heading into their junior year. In its third year, the program has become highly popular for students who have an interest in STEM-related studies.

“It has become its own standing program,” explained Valeria Morales, rural pre-collegiate program manager in the Office of Diversity, Equity and Community Engagement. “We have a three week residential program, where students participate during the summer and take classes similar to the other programs, but these are much more STEM focused, such as, STEM writing or science writing.”

During the residential program, based at CU Boulder, students come to understand scientific proposals, scientific research and produce science posters for presentations, Morales said. Working on their math skills and abilities is a big component of the program in addition to a foundational STEM exploration course. Last year, students in the program explored electrical signaling: What does electrical signaling look like through different STEM majors? Or STEM foci?

Pre-collegiate students at work

Students worked on engineering projects in last year's pre-collegiate residential program.

“Some of those were, for example, looking at earthquakes and how the electrical signals can be measured through mechanical engineering, and their creation of tools that measure the actual shift and waves of the earthquake,” Morales said. “But they also looked at how these electrical waves, or these electrical signals impact a building that's created. So, for civil engineering, making sure that you understand how a building will shift and how, within the quake, to make sure that it's not collapsing.”

On a broader, yet smaller scale, students examined electrical signaling through cells and how they communicate, what electrical signaling in bacteria growth looks like as well as neurotransmission, all the way to brain waves.

“So, it's really looking at one topic and how it extends to a variety of STEM curricular aspects," she said.

"It’s a really great way for students to see how interconnected and interdisciplinary STEM fields are, and not necessarily that it's limited to becoming a doctor or an engineer.”

In the final component in the course of the STEM program, students applied their new knowledge. “Our students were responsible for the 3D printing and designs and modeling of the characters of a book, and writing the braille for the book. And so, that was a really great experience for them, to kind of see how the STEM field can also have, in both projects, the social impact,” Morales said.

Last year, 17 students took part in the residential program; this summer about 60 students will attend. And as the STEM program takes off, its sister rural outreach programs continue to grow and include new rural communities. Two years ago, the programs further expanded into rural Eastern and Southern Colorado, including Fort Morgan and the San Luis Valley.

“It’s our third year with students particiating in our Summer Residential Program, or our Summer Experience Program here on campus,” Morales said. “We've had two groups come up from Fort Morgan, and this year we're really excited because, from the first year, we actually have student participants who are returning  as employees now – they’ll be serving as some of the peer counselors for the summer program.”

Anywhere from 20 to 40 Fort Morgan and San Luis Valley incoming seniors have taken part each summer the past three years, she said.

“It’s a two week residential academic program. They're taking courses that are not for credit, in math, English, science, and then they get to choose from an elective,” she explained. “Those courses prepare students for their senior year, so they're actually getting to see and are being taught the material that they would see in their senior year courses as a kind of a prep from them during the summer. But, they're offered a little bit more rigor, to mirror what the college experience would be.”

In addition to the courses, the students are on campus living in the dorms, getting the experience of meeting new people, sharing space with a roommate, eating in the dining hall and benefiting from mentors.

“We’re really looking to help students identify, ‘What will be their next step after graduation?’ Looking at what colleges they're interested in attending, what their application process would look like, as well as preparing for scholarship applications during that college prep course,” Morales said.

Pre-collegiate students benefit Kenya community

Pre-collegiate students last summer created a solar suitcase in the STEM program. The suitcase was donated to a community in Kenya.

In addition to former attendees returning as peer mentors, the students are having an impact on shaping the program. Last year was the first year students from the San Luis Valley took part, with four students joining the residential program. With dedication from the pre-collegiate staff and the participating students, that number will grow.

“Some feedback that we've received from students from Fort Morgan was that it would be nice to meet students from other rural communities,” Morales said. “It has been a really great way to both have students from the San Luis Valley and also students from Fort Morgan to share their experiences about where they come from, and just getting to meet other students from other parts of Colorado.”

Because it is more difficult for students from the San Luis Valley to get to Boulder for the extended program, the pre-collegiate program last fall organized an overnight option to attend the Office of Admissions' Diversity and Inclusion Visit Program.

“There were about 37 students from the San Luis Valley who came up for an overnight visit,” Morales said. The students got the campus tour, learned about resources, about CU Boulder, such as the CU LEAD Alliance programs, support services and more. The second day, they participated in the Admissions DIVE Day.

“That was really successful. So, we're hoping that with that set up, we'll have more students become familiar earlier on with the campus, and then have an interest in attending the Summer Program,” Morales said.

The pre-collegiate programs cover all four campuses and serve about 3,100 Colorado students a year; having served approximately 48,000 since they started 37 years ago at CU Boulder. The college prep programs comprise a series of 8eight year-long programs serving middle school and high school students that provide curricular, co-curricular and extracurricular resources that prepare  participants for the rigors of academic life at CU or any other higher education institution.