By Margaret Kovar
Program encourages underrepresented youth to consider math, science careers
“To infinity and beyond!” is a line immortalized by the character Buzz Lightyear in the movie “Toy Story.” This phrase also could be the unofficial slogan for the Southern New Mexico Science, Engineering, Mathematics and Aerospace Academy (SNM SEMAA), where for many students, learning about science is only just the beginning.
The success of this New Mexico State University program has not only led to students becoming more interested in science and math, but also has spurred the development of other science programs.
The program was started in 2001 with a $125,000 grant from NASA. The Aerospace Education Lab, located in the Engineering Complex, also was installed as part of the grant.
Part of the National SEMAA, one of NASA’s premiere programs, the New Mexico academy provides an after-school aerospace enrichment program. It is a collaboration between NMSU’s colleges of Education and Engineering, NASA, Las Cruces Public Schools and the Gadsden Independent School District.
The academy strives to provide more inquiry-based opportunities for historically underrepresented students such as Hispanics, Native Americans and young women to engage in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. Of those participating in the program, 52 percent are female and 85.7 percent are Hispanic, and many come from homes where income is less than $20,000 a year.
The program began as an outreach to area middle school students, and has added more grade levels as it has progressed. The academy currently serves grades K-10. More than 3,500 students a year have participated in the program, and more than 16,000 have participated in the program since its creation.
Susan Brown, director of STEM outreach for NMSU’s Institute for Excellence in Math and Science Education, said middle school students were targeted because of the high school dropout rate in New Mexico.
“If we can get students engaged and excited about science and math in middle school, then they will maintain that interest through high school and into college,” she said.
The three-part program includes afterschool sessions, lab work and a family component. Students participate in eight-week sessions of curriculum emphasizing science, engineering and mathematics with an overarching theme of aerospace education. Teachers also receive professional development before each of the fall, winter, spring or summer sessions.
“It’s amazing – kids love to solve problems and puzzles,” Brown said. “We want them to be critical thinkers. Science is all around us, and scientific thinking can be used in all areas of life.”
Several of the student sessions are held at the aerospace lab and are facilitated by a trained and certified teacher. Participants visit different modules designed to teach different aspects of aviation and aerospace, including a wind tunnel and a global positioning system.
Family festivals are held throughout the year at each SEMAA school site and allow family members to participate in STEM activities. Families also can participate in special sessions, designed to help them assist their children in becoming successful in the STEM fields.
NASA originally wrote the curriculum, but those involved with the New Mexico academy have rewritten it to better fit the diverse student population in the area. The curriculum also meets New Mexico science, math and technology standards and is different for each grade level.
Brown stressed the importance of science and math education for today’s students.
“Many countries around the world have nearly half or more of their college undergraduate population in STEM fields, while the U.S. has only 15 percent of undergraduates in these fields” she said. “By the year 2015, it’s estimated the nation will need 400,000 STEM graduates.”
The program receives feedback from the students, teachers, administrators and parents at the end of every session. A survey is given to students, teachers and parents at the end of every session. The surveys show student interest has risen in the STEM fields during every session.
A recent study revealed that students who have participated in the academy’s program for more than three years scored higher on their standardized science tests from 2007-2008. The study also found the scores of the science portion of the standardized tests of SEMAA students to be higher than the scores of non-SEMAA participants.
“The program is making a difference in the lives of students, educators and families. Quantitative data shows that SEMAA students in the Gadsden Independent School District and Las Cruces Public Schools are scoring higher on the science portion of standardized tests. Students are becoming comfortable in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields,” Brown said. “Also, their attitude toward math and science is more positive and they look forward to learning more.”
Funding for the program has expanded significantly. Companies and organizations from across the nation, such as the Toyota USA Foundation and Qwest Communications, have invested in the organization.
In 2008, the national SEMAA office named the New Mexico academy as the Most Innovative Program for making the program effective for all students. The program also received the Group Achievement Award from NASA for being the most innovative and effective program for students in the NASA community.
SNM SEMAA also was recognized in 2008 by the U.S. Congressional Record for having one of the most innovative and effective programs in the nation for students in kindergarten through 12th grade in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The program was recognized by Harvard University as a finalist for the Innovations in American Government Awards.
These successes have spurred the growth of numerous related programs, including an all-girl SEMAA group. The Engineering Information Foundation helps provide funding and the New Mexico academy partners with the NMSU computer science department. Female speakers in the STEM areas often present to the group as well.
Another branch of the program is available in the Gadsden school district. The two-year-old School and Family Engagement Centers are in nine schools in the district. Students in this program receive SNM SEMAA education all year long, allowing for an expanded curriculum.
A program created in part by SNM SEMAA’s success is the Southern New Mexico Academy of Young Scientists. Funded by the National Science Foundation, AYS emphasizes hands-on science field excursions and participation in afterschool space and science programs and tracks students’ progress.
AYS provides a variety of out-of-school STEM opportunities for about 400 Las Cruces students in the fifth through seventh grades and their parents. Students explore many science topics including archaeology, aerospace and astronomy, engineering, biology, geology, environmental awareness and the latest technology.
Students in the academy strive to participate in 150 hours of out-of-school STEM activities during the three-year program, with some students accumulating more than 450 hours of out-of-school activities. Participants also receive awards for reaching their 50-, 100- and 150-hour science goals.
Along with helping the students, the program exposes teachers to informal learning experiences and provides ways for them to use these experiences in the classroom.
As with SNM SEMAA, research has found that participation in the program has broadened students’ views of the definition of science. Parents have observed their children become more confident with the STEM fields, and more minorities and women are envisioning themselves in the STEM careers. Southern New Mexico’s science academy is proving for many young people to be only a beginning in their academic journeys, “to infinity and beyond!”