Three, two, one, GO!” Students race to the table with a cup in their mouth and a toothpick, fork, or spoon in hand, scrambling to get as much food into their cups as they can in 10 seconds. It is the first day of biology week at the MIT BoSTEM Scholar’s Academy, and today’s lesson is about Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Each student is a different finch, eating with a different kind of beak, and the race helps them learn how heritable variations and environmental changes influence selection. The students are familiar with the phrase “survival of the fittest,” but through the finch exercise they come to understand the more nuanced—and accurate—concept of selection.
I cofounded BoSTEM Academy with Joshua Charles Woodard ’18 to help bridge a huge curriculum gap in metropolitan public high schools serving mainly African-American and Latino students from low-income households. Though college acceptance rates for inner-city students have significantly improved, college graduation figures remain abysmally low, especially in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). Since property taxes fund local public schools, those in impoverished areas don’t have the resources to offer a curriculum that prepares students to succeed in college.
The MIT BoSTEM Scholar’s Academy aims to give Greater Boston high school students—especially girls and underrepresented minorities—the chance to gain experience in STEM. As students from the impoverished South Side of Chicago, Josh and I bring firsthand knowledge of the urban educational experience to this project. Having overcome social, financial, and academic obstacles, we understand the power of believing in your ability to achieve. We’ve learned to change the paradigm of success from external (“I can’t accomplish this because I was born in that situation”) to internal (“I can’t accomplish this because I’m not working hard enough”). Through BoSTEM, we hope to instill these values in our students.
We piloted BoSTEM Academy on the MIT campus in summer 2017 as a four-week program for 12 rising sophomores and juniors interested in STEM fields. Josh and I recruited five MIT undergraduates to serve as fellow instructors, mentors, and role models. Like us, they are all from ethnic, social, financial, and academic backgrounds similar to those of the Boston students.
We decided to take a “flipped classroom” approach, requiring students to read texts and watch online lectures before class. This let us use our time together to demonstrate the application of the science concepts and to give students the hands-on experiences required to understand them. The model encouraged active learning and peer-to-peer mentoring, and the information they learned the night before each class primed them to get the most out of what we did as a group. Research shows that the flipped classroom meets the needs of a wider range of learners than the conventional approach and leads to higher standardized test scores.
We dedicated a week each to chemistry, biology, physics, and computer science, offering an overview of the topics students would encounter in their first few years of college. Over the four weeks, we had our students compare the kinetics of different enzymes, extract amino acids, and apply their new programming knowledge to Raspberry Pi, a simple microcontroller. Wednesdays we focused on students’ personal and professional development, giving tutorials on college admissions, diversity and inclusion, financial planning, interviewing, and job shadowing.
Although our students did not reach mastery, they demonstrated significant growth in knowledge of each subject. In tests we gave before and after each unit, their chemistry scores went from 55 to 65 percent, biology scores from 36 to 63 percent, and physics scores from 11 to 50 percent. They also learned how to give presentations on peer-reviewed journal articles and write competitive résumés.
This year, we plan to offer BoSTEM to 25 students for eight weeks, which will allow us to go into more detail on the same topics and have more time for hands-on experiments. Ultimately, we hope to expand to other cities with large minority populations—and perhaps one day to low-income, non-minority communities as well—to help nurture the next generation of STEM leaders across America.
Javier Weddington graduated from Perspectives-Calumet in Chicago in 2013 and from Trinity College in 2017. He is a research associate in the Tye Lab at MIT.