Igniting STEM Career Interest in Local High School Students

ruskin students

Ruskin High School students explore STEM-related careers with faculty from the KU Edwards Campus. 

In the next three years, STEM careers are expected to grow faster than the average for all other occupations. Unfortunately, not enough students are pursuing STEM-based college degrees to fill the growing demand. Biotechnology faculty at the KU Edwards Campus are bridging that gap through outreach programs involving Kansas City-area high school students.

Jack Treml and Randall Logan, both professors of practice and program directors for the JCERT-supported Bachelor of Applied Science in Biotechnology program, have created a series of campus events and programs designed to spark high school students’ interest in STEM learning, provide lab experience and introduce them to career possibilities.

“We often meet high school students who are very interested in science, but when asked about career plans, they overwhelmingly say ‘I want to be a doctor,’” Logan said.  “We want to open their eyes to other options and raise awareness of the profound impact they can have on society by contributing to scientific discoveries.”

Logan and Treml host several outreach events for area students and teachers throughout the year. In the fall and spring semesters, high school juniors and seniors visit KUEC’s biotechnology lab facilities.  The visiting students roleplay challenging scenarios scientists face, run hands-on experiments and explore career options in science.

Students Working with Students

In late fall, the campus’ Biotech Day kicks off a Research Apprentice Program, where high school seniors are invited to apply for a semester-long research experience. The chosen apprentices work side-by-side with KUEC biotechnology seniors on a capstone project, where they generate experimental data in the lab, analyze results and learn how to complete a research project.

KUEC biotechnology senior Paniz Borzoofard recruited high school apprentices to aid her capstone project, where she’s researching the creation of an in-home test for a prostate-specific antigen associated with prostate cancer.

“Performing and completing a capstone project takes a lot of time and patience. Having my apprentices there during the week really helped me with both of those aspects,” Borzoofard said. “They also provided insightful feedback and suggestions throughout their experience, which was very helpful.”

For one of Borzoofard’s apprentices, Olathe North senior Nasrin Shahlari, the experience helped her develop technical skills outside her own classroom. “Through the apprenticeship, I learned the purposes of different pieces of lab equipment and actually used some of it working with Paniz,” Shahlari said.

Fellow apprentice and Olathe North senior Ty Twidwell said his experience was valuable, too. “I’m also working with Paniz and she helped me solidify my lab techniques. She had me do some research, which helped me better comprehend scholarly reports and studies.”

In addition to gaining lab help, Borzoofard says her mentoring role helped her learn leadership skills she’ll be able to use after she graduates. “Leadership isn’t about giving orders. It’s about teaching others what you know and staying patient throughout the process until they feel comfortable handling things on their own,” she said. “This is something that helped me grow immensely.”

Logan says this collaboration between high school apprentices and undergraduate seniors helps facilitate the development of practical skills that will benefit their future careers. “The students may not realize it now, but in a couple years they will understand what this experience has given them,” he said. “I'm absolutely confident they're getting skills that are relevant and applicable in the industry or in graduate school.”

Sparking Classroom Ideas for High School Teachers

Logan and Treml also offer a summer research methods class designed for high school science instructors seeking to expand their technical skills and content knowledge. Working with KU faculty, participants create new active-learning laboratory experiences they can take back to the classroom.

Stephenie Higgs, a biology instructor at Spring Hill High School, says she’s found the summer research methods class extremely helpful.

“This course refreshed and re-honed my own personal laboratory skills, as well as gave me some new ideas on how to make classroom labs more hands on and more inquiry based,” Higgs said. “I believe it has been one of the most helpful classes I have ever taken!”