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Science in Society Awarded First NSF Grant

Collaborative research project will explore long-term outcomes for middle-school youth, their mentors, and partner organizations

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded a collaborative research team from Northwestern and DePaul a five-year, $2.4 million grant to conduct a multipronged impact study of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) mentoring for 10- to14-year-old students. This effort aims to fill critical gaps in the mentoring literature regarding the formative middle school years through novel, empirical research.

Among the millions of volunteer mentors who support youth development in the United States each year, four-dozen STEM graduate students from Northwestern and other Chicago-area universities meet weekly with underserved youth in a long-running afterschool setting known as Science Club.

“Mentoring is a widely accepted strategy for supporting positive socioemotional and cognitive development across a variety of sectors — including education, workforce development, and the justice system — but there is broad concern that practice has outpaced empirical testing,” says Michael Kennedy, neurobiology and founding director of Science in Society (SiS), Northwestern’s research center for community-focused K-12 science education “There is anecdotal evidence of success, but the research literature is extremely thin when you look at STEM mentoring relationships and their impacts, especially for students in elementary and middle school years.”

Developed programmatically in 2008 at Northwestern, Science Club is a mentor-based afterschool program for underserved middle-grade youth designed to address STEM learning gaps by connecting in-school and out-of-school learning. Through weekly, inquiry-based, small-group instruction in a dedicated laboratory setting at Boys & Girls Clubs in the Chicago area and in the makerspace MetaMedia at the McGaw YMCA in Evanston, youth build authentic science skills and receive the support of scientist-mentors.

Kennedy is principal investigator of the new NSF grant, which includes co-principal investigators Rabiah Mayas, SiS associate director, and DePaul University’s Bernadette Sánchez, whose research focuses on race, cultural identity, and mentoring.

“I’m very excited to collaborate on this research project as this will be one of the first rigorous studies to examine the role of mentoring relationships in the science identity and skillsets of urban youth of color in the middle school years,” says Sánchez, a professor of community psychology. “One strength of this work will be the collection of data from various perspectives in the program, including from youth, their mentors, and parents.”

The research project will use Science Club’s empirically tested model as a case study. The Boys & Girls Club sites will be used to examine three important issues for advancing theory and practice for STEM mentoring:

  • Understanding STEM mentoring for youth in the middle grades
  • Identifying outcomes and motivations for scientist mentors to more fully participate in mentoring programs
  • Examining a model of middle school-focused STEM mentoring collaboration.

Kennedy continues to advocate for community-based partnerships and programs, like the award-winning Science Club, which act as powerful learning opportunities that solidify the STEM-career pipeline in Chicago’s traditionally underserved neighborhoods.

“Northwestern is proud to work alongside Chicago Public Schools and the Boys & Girls Clubs of Chicago to advance our knowledge of how mentoring relationships positively support children’s identity as scientific thinkers and problem solvers,” he says. “Our hope is that learning more about why Science Club has been so successful will allow others across the country to effectively replicate this mentor-based model.”

Science Club has received numerous awards, and been featured in various publications for its role in bridging the gap between in-school and out-of-school learning environments.

Science in Society is part of Northwestern’s robust ecosystem of University Research Institutes and Centers, a collection of more than 40 interdisciplinary knowledge hubs that harness talent from across all areas of the institution.

By Roger Anderson