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An Overview of STEM Enrichment Programs

A conversation with Me’lani Labat Joseph

In a recent conversation, we learned how getting students into college majors that are a good fit for them is important for growing incomes and the economy. It is well known that workers with a college degree tend to earn more than workers with a high school diploma. Careers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) pay particularly well. Considering that STEM careers can represent a path to success in the labor market, it is worth reflecting on the hurdles underrepresented groups face in studying STEM fields.

To gain some insight on this issue, I recently spoke with Me’lani Joseph. Mrs. Joseph studied engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) but has spent the bulk of her career advocating for greater participation in STEM fields by Black and brown students. She recently wrote a report surveying the landscape of out-of-school STEM enrichment programs in Northeast Ohio, and we discussed what programs can do to encourage underrepresented groups to choose careers in STEM.

Before getting into any programming specifics, Mrs. Joseph argues, we all need to stop underestimating what Black and brown students can achieve and start believing in their success in STEM fields. But belief is not enough: she sees the need for engaging students with STEM content early and often as key for youth becoming comfortable and, if they want, pursuing a STEM career.

Mrs. Joseph is excited about the potential of several approaches to STEM enrichment for attracting underrepresented groups to the field. She sees great power in learning communities, or groups of students who encourage each other to believe in themselves and to foster their excitement for learning about STEM topics. She sees near-peer mentoring as an effective way of building those communities. Following this strategy, younger students are exposed to older students’ enthusiasm for a topic, while older students are able to realize their own capacity for changing the world after influencing a younger student’s path.

Mrs. Joseph also notes a few program characteristics that she sees as consistently leading to student success. She asserts that students benefit from programs with significant minority involvement as leaders and staff; noting that learning communities including educators is one way of helping white teachers become more knowledgeable about what it’s like to live as a Black or brown person in the United States. She says that programs that stick with it over the long haul also tend to have the most success. The aim of such enrichment programs is sustained engagement with students—it is not a one-time experience, it’s a commitment to students as they grow.

The following conversation has been edited and condensed. Listen to an extended version of this conversation.

Success in STEM requires a mindset shift to believing in students’ abilities

Me’lani Joseph

There are incredible opportunities for STEM engagement in this region. One of the big barriers, though, is that folks don't know about these opportunities, and especially the Black and brown populations don't know about these opportunities. I think that a couple of the other key barriers are that I didn't find high urgency around how to engage Black and brown young people. And the fact that the dots aren't being connected as far as what the different institutions are doing. And I think that if those were being connected a lot more strategically, then we could see higher numbers of Black and brown young people accessing STEM opportunities in the region.

Dionissi Aliprantis

You mentioned in your report this mindset shift and the idea that we underestimate what Black and brown kids can achieve in STEM. And really what's possible, I think, in a very general sense. I'm curious if you could describe that.

Me’lani Joseph

I think a mindset is pervasive in every realm. So it's pervasive in the young person, and the family of the young person, and educators, and the STEM providers, and the stakeholder. I mean, literally everyone. Much like racism is pervasive in all of our minds, regardless of who you are, just because we live in a society that's built upon racism. I feel like all of us, including myself, actually, have some hangups, and I'm in this work (laughs)! You know…

Dionissi Aliprantis

But you're a part of it. I mean, you're a part of the society. We all are, right?

Me’lani Joseph

Exactly. So I just feel like there's a mindset shift that we have to change in order for us to get over the hump of getting these young people who are perfectly capable of being very, very successful in STEM to believe in it themselves. And so, when everyone in the ecosystem believes in the success of Black and brown young people, then guess what? They're going to be successful. (laughs).

“Early and often” can be facilitated by getting STEM resources into homes

Me’lani Joseph

So this is actually a good opportunity to talk about what I believe is the life spectrum that we need to consider in order to really make a difference in achievement and getting more Black and brown young people into STEM. I believe it begins before the baby is even born. So, prenatal. I believe that having relationships with young people who have not had the baby yet, to get them exposed to the wonders of math and science, engineering and technology—before they have their young person—is critical. And then it's a continuum of having constant math and science experiences throughout the lifetime and through early professional. So often, there are programs that just focus on, say, elementary or middle, or high school, or even collegiate. But I personally feel like we're not going to have mass change until we get a parent and families before the kid even is born.

I use the term “early and often” a lot in my work. In order to make any kind of difference in STEM proficiency and excellence is to be exposed to STEM early and often.

I am also proposing that we somehow figure out how to get STEM resources into the homes of every single Black and brown young person. I feel like if there was something at every stage of a young person's life in the home to at least give everyone something accessible—it could be like a CD (I think they still use CDs) (laughs) or some kind of downloadable song or audio that you could access by your phone. It may play a song on something STEM related. Or there…maybe there's an audio book that young people could access so we can make available to every single family. Maybe there's some kind of manipulative—books or games—for other young people. You know, UNO was great for learning numbers, colors, and strategy. Maybe there's chessboards that we could give to every family.

I really believe this could be done, honestly. (laughs).

Dionissi Aliprantis

That's interesting. I think it very clearly could be done, and it actually feels a little bit like an extension, to me, of the work that Dolly Parton is doing. I've thought about that work, where it has just been a huge benefit to me as someone with young children. We have a lot of books in our house anyway, but life is complicated, and you're busy, and you're tired. And somebody just puts the book in front of you to read with your kid. It makes it a lot easier.

And I've often thought, man, when you think about all the things going on in the world, this might be one of the best things for kids and for our society that's being done. It's just a very cool thing. And maybe what you're saying is that, in addition, send them a board game or a book or something that's also STEM oriented.

Learning communities can encourage students’ interest in STEM

Dionissi Aliprantis

When you think about these types of programs, one of the features that you described as something that really improves their effectiveness is learning communities. I'm wondering if you could describe these so we can understand how they can foster positive outcomes. And I'll start with students.

Me’lani Joseph

Learning communities, in general, are really positive, but I'm just a firm believer in the cohort idea, and especially when you're talking about STEM, which is grossly underrepresented in Black and brown people.

Let’s think about high school and middle school students. When young people can get together with others who look like themselves who have shown a strong interest in STEM, to see other young people who have an interest in, say, chemistry, or biology, or engineering, and/or math, then I'm seeing other people look like them. Then that gets them more excited and like, "Oh yeah, if they could do it, I can do it."

Dionissi Aliprantis

It's just encouraging, right?

Me’lani Joseph

Absolutely. So building a community—it's just a beautiful thing. It's a beautiful thing when you see young people who are having similar experiences in STEM, and they're able to talk about things, and they get excited, and they also get to see other people's excitement.

Learning communities can facilitate educators’ ability to engage with Black and brown students

Dionissi Aliprantis

Moving on from students, what are some of the things that a learning community could offer to an educator?

Me’lani Joseph

When I think about learning communities, it's all about learning. (laughs). And so when I think about building these learning committees with educators, I think about, How can they share their experiences of curriculum? Their experiences of engaging with Black and brown young people, in particular? What works? What doesn't work? What's been successful with them?

I think it's about their own journeys. How are the nonminority educators getting in touch with their racial equity journey? And how can they share their journeys with other people who are having a similar journey? When I think about solutions, I think about, specifically, people who are in this space, and I think there needs to be some education around just the history of America and the legacy of racism in this country. I think that's a foundation for getting a little closer to understanding the context by which Black people in particular live and face in this country and have faced and have lived for 400 years. And so, for me, I think that's really, really important and is really part of the solution. It's a piece of the solution to get white teachers in particular to become more culturally competent, and just knowledgeable about the lived experience of Black and brown young people—and people in general—in this country.

I wanted to make sure I said that because I think it's really important. There's all this diversity and inclusion training now. And actually, there's something to it. (laughs). I think it actually really is important if we're going to try and address systemic and institutional barriers and racism that exist in pretty much all facets of life for me as a Black person.

Near-peer mentoring is an effective approach that benefits both the younger mentee and the older mentor

Me’lani Joseph

I look at my own 18-year-old about to go off there into college, into the world. And I feel like he and many of his classmates could have been so much more utilized in getting young people excited about and exposed to STEM, and they just weren't given that opportunity. But I feel like if there were some institutional ways in which young people could be used in that way, I think that that's also a key part of the solution.

I just haven't seen that, and so I really hope in my next phase of the work, maybe a couple phases down… (laughs). I mean, that, for me, will be a success—if there's some infrastructure around young people, say high schoolers, who could have influence and engagement with the middle schools and elementary school young people.

Dionissi Aliprantis

So, it's interesting you bring that up for a couple of reasons. One is that we're planning to speak with someone who has a proposal on how to scale up tutoring and mentoring in a national context. And I actually don't know enough about that. I want to learn more about that proposal.

But I want to dig in here because I really agree that this is a very effective mechanism. It's a really effective way to get kids engaged, and I think it goes both ways. Could you talk about what it does for the older kid as well?

Me’lani Joseph

Absolutely. So I think it does go both ways. I think that, yes, the impact on the older young person is that it shows them that they are valuable. I think it increases their confidence. I think it shows that they have some agency, and the whole system of getting young people interested in math and science—it could be English, it could be arts, right? It could be whatever subject, quite honestly. But it shows that they have some real influence over this younger person. And I think that they will forever remember the little face that looks up to them and is just staring in their eyes and is just eating up every single word that they're saying. And knowing that there was a time where there was this young person and, “I had that impact on that little person,” right? I mean, I think that they carry that.

I think that my son, my 18-year-old now, will carry those experiences that he had with tutoring younger Black boys in math. He will remember the power that that gave the young boy but also what that meant for him internally. Like, “Wow, I would like to be a person who is able to recreate that experience in a young person's life and also see how maybe I can encourage my peers to also have those experiences.” And so I think it's really powerful for the older young person.

Dionissi Aliprantis

Beautiful. That was very beautifully said.

Effective programs leverage resources, have minority representation on staff, and sustain engagement with students

Dionissi Aliprantis

Could you speak for a moment about some of the characteristics of some of the exemplary organizations that you came across?

Me’lani Joseph

Through my interviews with all of the organizations in my landscape analysis of STEM providers, and also with my knowledge of just what I know works to have an impact on young people, there were some exemplary characteristics in organizations that I outlined in my report.

One of them is having dedicated leaders who go above and beyond the call of duty (laughs) to make the experience of young people the most it can be in the organization. The organizations that the young people are affiliated with usually have an ongoing relationship with the young person. And so, if it's year-round, that's better than, say, an eight-week program. It became really clear that organizations that tend to have constant communication with a young person have better outcomes.

The fact that the young people could engage with organizational leaders and staff that were racially and ethnically similar to them also is key in the outcomes of young people. If young people are seeing the organization leader who looks like them, it just helps in their outcomes.

To have an organization that stays connected with young people once the program period is over is also really important. If you are, say, a high-school-oriented program, but then they go off to college, then the ability of the organization to stay connected somehow with that young person also tended to increase their success.

And then the fact that resources were maximized and leveraged was really important. It really boils down to the leaders or the staff in the organization. If they're constantly thinking about, "You know, what are the different resources that I can use to enhance my organization but also enhance the young person's chances of success?"

Those are people who are making connections and continually thinking like, "What can I bring? What can I do? What can I expose this young person to?”

And then there are some clearly defined outcomes of the activity. So of whatever the initiative is, it is important that there are some clearly defined goals, and that they're achieved (laughs) through the activity. This allows collecting data and analyzing it among the program, to keep refining and retooling what they're doing so that it can get better and better.

Hal Martin and Andrew Zajac contributed to this article.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the participants and do not necessarily represent the views of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland or the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System.

Me'lani Joseph
Me’lani Joseph

Founder and Principal
Transformative Innovations LLC

Me’lani Labat Joseph is the founder and principal of Transformative Innovations LLC, which provides strategic thinking and technical assistance to organizations and institutions to maximize youth and community outcomes, with a special focus on high-impact STEM programming strategies. She has more than two decades of experience in community and youth development and programming—specifically designing, developing, and implementing pre-K–12th grade STEM outreach programs—with a special focus on serving underrepresented minority students. Me'lani is involved in various volunteer and civic activities that promote the educational, social, and emotional development of students of color. Ms. Labat Joseph holds a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a master’s degree in public policy studies from the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago.

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