A university in Canada has been matching bright local high school students with its research scientists in a win-win scenario that has the man who started the program asking, if it worked here, why not elsewhere?
Dr. Joe Engemann is an associate professor in the department of Education at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario. A graduate of Brock University himself, Engemann founded the Brock Science Mentorship Program in 1995 with just six students from three local high schools. He wanted to create a program that would match science keen high school students with real scientists. In 2013, the program matched 27 students from 10 high schools with mentors in research labs from biology, chemistry, earth science, physics, math, electronics, computer science, neuroscience, and applied health science.
High school teachers nominate students for the program during their 11th grade. Those accepted are matched with a university professor mentor. Beginning the second week of their 12th grade, students spend half of every school day working with their mentors. Engemann stresses that the students aren’t doing grunt work. “They’re not washing glasswear. They’re learning to conduct scientifically meaningful research from experts in real places of research.” Students develop a research idea based on their mentors’ areas of research. They learn the science, lab routines, and literature related to that research – then they conduct research themselves, including analyzing data and drawing conclusions. At the end of their semester-long mentorship, students present their findings at a symposium. Student research projects have included such impressive-sounding titles as “The Impact of Apoptosis on Alternative Splicing in Primary and Cancer Cells” and “Activity of LINE-1 Retrotransposons in Human Genomes.”
To start the program, Engemann says he had to get buy in from deans, chairs, and professors. “It took a lot of work and a lot of glad handing, but I’ve got a pretty good sales pitch. Students do real science related to ongoing research in the lab, and the professor benefits from that work being done. It’s a benefit to everyone, so that’s how I sold it.” In addition, students who are accepted are asked to consider attending Brock after graduating high school. The University has benefited from an influx of these bright young minds – 70% of students who participate attend Brock. In return, the University supports Science Mentorship Program almuni with scholarships and other financial aid. (The program is free for students; schools provide $150 per student to the mentors’ labs to cover the cost of equipment.)
Engmann thinks this model of science mentorship can work in other cities – and could even be used to increase diversity in STEM fields. “The education gap is a problem everywhere,” he says of the public education systems of Canada and the United States. “The city of St. Catharines where the University exists is a rather affluent part of the province. Of course we’ve got poverty as well. [A Science Mentorship Program] could be a great way to reach schools and students who are less affluent.” Engemann would love to see the Science Mentorship Program adapted to other cities and other universities; he invites anyone interested in starting a program like the Brock Science Mentorship Program to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org