In efforts to develop a unique pedagogy for underrepresented high school and undergraduate students, we developed a pilot study to determine the effectiveness of vertically integrating STEM research education from high school students through Ph.D. candidates. The interdisciplinary research project's overarching goal is to assess the impact of environmental pollutants (specifically, platinum group elements found in road dust) on eukaryotic and prokaryotic cells and develop computational models to predict the outcomes of exposure. Ultimately, the project involves elements of fate and transport of platinum group elements in soil, water, and air and their impacts on environmental microbiology, eukaryotic cell signaling, and environmental computational modeling. Our vertically integrated and aligned mentorship model paired high school students with undergraduates, M.S. students, and Ph.D. students in various laboratories. To complement their laboratory research exposure, students also attended professional development seminars on résumé preparation, literature mining/searching, preparation of manuscripts, presentation of data, and critical reading of peer-reviewed articles. Our pilot study was very successful in exposing future STEM workers (high school students and college undergraduates) to meaningful research experiences that they translated into seven poster and oral presentations, three review articles (in preparation), three journal articles, and improved attitudes toward STEM careers.

Introduction

In response to a potential future shortage in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) workforce in the United States, we sought to turn the tide of waning student interest in integrated STEM (I-STEM) studies unrelated to the health professions. To achieve this aim, we sought to develop a vertically integrated and aligned educational program. We recruited underrepresented minority high school and undergraduate students to participate in our interdisciplinary research project that assesses the impact of environmental pollutants – specifically, platinum group elements (PGEs) found in road dust – on eukaryotic and prokaryotic cells (Figure 1).

Figure 1.

Interdisciplinary Environmental Research Project. The impacts of environmental pollutants, specifically platinum group elements (PGEs) found in road dust, on eukaryotic and prokaryotic cells were evaluated, and computational models predicted the outcomes of exposure. The project involved elements of fate and transport of PGEs in soil, water, and air and their impacts on environmental microbiology, eukaryotic cell signaling, and environmental computational modeling.

Figure 1.

Interdisciplinary Environmental Research Project. The impacts of environmental pollutants, specifically platinum group elements (PGEs) found in road dust, on eukaryotic and prokaryotic cells were evaluated, and computational models predicted the outcomes of exposure. The project involved elements of fate and transport of PGEs in soil, water, and air and their impacts on environmental microbiology, eukaryotic cell signaling, and environmental computational modeling.

The transition metals rhodium, palladium, and platinum are examples of PGEs and are used in the manufacturing of catalytic converters in motor vehicles. Since 1975, when catalytic converters were introduced, there have been documented increases of PGEs in the biosphere, mainly due to PGE emission from automobile exhaust (Palacios et al., 2000; Zereini et al., 2007). PGEs can then form various soluble salt complexes (e.g., platinum chloride, palladium chloride, rhodium chloride) in the environment (with some remaining in the atmosphere, bound to particulate matter) and can even travel indoors (Shiue & Bramley, 2014). Direct human exposure can occur through ingestion of soluble PGE salts (Vaughan & Florence, 1992) or inhalation of airborne particulate PGEs (Ek et al., 2004), potentially leading to human disease. Our project, designed to advance the knowledge of how both prokaryotic and eukaryotic cells respond to PGEs found in dust (since not much is known about this in the field), is an excellent interdisciplinary platform to broadly train high school, undergraduate, and graduate students in a vertically aligned manner. In a more widespread, collective effort, biology educators could adopt our model (or a similar model) to enhance STEM professional preparation and student interest in STEM professions.

The 25 participants in our program included five rising high school juniors/seniors, seven undergraduate college students, six M.S.-seeking graduate students, and seven Ph.D. candidates (Table 1), the majority of whom were underrepresented minorities in I-STEM fields (Table 2) as defined by the National Science Foundation (i.e., African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Native Pacific Islanders, Females, etc.; http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/wmpd/).

Table 1.
Total number of students supported during our eight-week summer program, including those directly supported by summer stipends (through National Science Foundation [NSF] funding, as the budget allowed) and those supported indirectly through the purchase of their research consumables and supplies, furthering our program's reach.
NSF Direct SupportNumber of Students (12 Total)
High school students 
Undergraduates 
Ph.D. students 
Indirect Support Number of Students (13 Total) 
High school students 
Undergraduates 
M.S. students 
Ph.D. students 
NSF Direct SupportNumber of Students (12 Total)
High school students 
Undergraduates 
Ph.D. students 
Indirect Support Number of Students (13 Total) 
High school students 
Undergraduates 
M.S. students 
Ph.D. students 
Table 2.
Demographics of students supported in our eight-week summer program, including underrepresented minorities (e.g., females, African Americans, and Hispanic Americans). Part of our project's goal was to increase the participation of underrepresented minorities in our vertically aligned I-STEM educational model.
Student DemographicsNumber of Students
High SchoolUndergraduateM.S.Ph.D.
Male African American 
Male Asian 
Male Caucasian 
Female African American 
Female Hispanic American 
Female Asian 
Female Caucasian 
Student DemographicsNumber of Students
High SchoolUndergraduateM.S.Ph.D.
Male African American 
Male Asian 
Male Caucasian 
Female African American 
Female Hispanic American 
Female Asian 
Female Caucasian 

To vertically integrate and align our educational program, high school students were carefully paired with undergraduate and graduate students (both M.S.- and Ph.D.-seeking) to work in environmental microbiology, eukaryotic cell signaling, environmental computational modeling, and environmental chemistry laboratories. Within these laboratories, all students developed marketable skills in cell culture techniques, bacterial culturing, molecular biology, environmental sampling, NMR spectroscopy, and supercomputing. Experimentally, students determined baseline environmental levels of PGEs in soil and air in Houston, Texas. They also observed that commercially purchased road dust (Sigma Aldrich: containing known amounts of PGEs) negatively affected bacterial growth of most organisms tested, positively affected bacterial biofilm production, and activated mitogen-activated-protein (MAP) kinase signaling cascades in lung epithelial cells.

We were prompted to include high school students in our vertical-education project by the realization that the STEM pipeline needed to be addressed earlier (than in college) to maximally capture the excitement and interest of our nation's future STEM workforce (Seymour & Hewitt, 1997; Russell et al., 2007; Jones et al., 2010). Previously, we had attempted to better engage undergraduate I-STEM students through hands-on molecular microbiology experiments involving the identification of unknown microbes growing in students' houses (Rosenzweig & Jejelowo, 2011); however, we recognized that to successfully recruit next-generation STEM professionals with advanced I-STEM degrees, we had to reach further back in the pipeline (i.e., we had to reach prospective I-STEM students in high school). Seminars have been used in the past to introduce undergraduate freshmen to research (Phillips et al., 2008), and we developed a similar mechanism to engage high school students. In our view, vertically integrating student education (i.e., involving hierarchal mentorship as well as peer mentorship) creates a community of learners and a more collaborative learning environment. In support of this notion, recent studies have demonstrated that vertical integration of inquiry-based learning modules in both medical school and undergraduate biomedical science programs improved student learning outcomes and critical-thinking skills (Wijnen-Meijer et al., 2010; Zimbardi et al., 2013). In fact, enhanced research content in undergraduate biology curricula improves learning outcomes/competencies and attitudes toward I-STEM careers/studies (Ward et al., 2014).

Within each group, high school students were required to make weekly presentations highlighting data that they had generated in their laboratories and to report on the progress in their project. This instilled the commitment needed for our high school participants to generate and organize meaningful, publication-quality data. Further, through vertical integration of research education by peers and near-peers into both the enlightenment of students and their weekly presentations, as has been done previously (Baum et al., 2006; Lopatto, 2007; Phillips et al., 2008; Villarejo et al., 2008; Phillips & Bartel, 2010; http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK32509/), we successfully created a community of learners who used one another as resources. Involving undergraduate and graduate students in the high school students' educational efforts created a collaborative learning-community structure (Balster et al., 2010), effectively a support system.

Research Design & Methodology

Survey-Driven Data

Our overall project ambition was to design a vertically integrated model of I-STEM education that simultaneously engaged multiple students (at various stages within the potential STEM pipeline) and, through providing meaningful research experiences, positively influence their attitudes toward potential STEM employment. Our research design involved exposing 12 (directly and indirectly supported) high school and undergraduate students (Table 1) to meaningful environmental biology research guided by near-peer tutors (M.S. and Ph.D. students) in four laboratories (described in detail below). Being able to additionally support students indirectly enables program faculty coordinators/participants to broaden the program's reach without having to increase the budget (which is typically limiting). To specifically gauge student attitudes toward I-STEM careers and studies, a survey instrument was developed that was administered to summer participants on their first day of program participation. The exact same instrument was also administered at the program's conclusion eight weeks later, following weekly student presentations, professional development workshops, completion of research projects, and participation in a summer symposium in which 11 students made seven oral and poster presentations highlighting their summer's work.

Scientific research laboratories. As pedagogues in an institution of higher learning, we are acutely aware of the need to actively engage both high school and undergraduate students in advanced I-STEM studies in order to promote STEM career awareness within those populations. As a result, an overarching, interdisciplinary project characterizing prokaryotic and eukaryotic cellular responses to road-dust PGE exposure was chosen because of its broad appeal. More specifically, students who have interests in environmental sampling, cell biology, microbiology (bacteriology), environmental chemistry, and/or computational biochemistry could all be accommodated and be able to play an experimental role. For those interested in adopting this type of vertical-education approach to enhance pedagogy, a similarly broad project should be employed. For our educational program, the following four cutting-edge research laboratories housed all of our participants (Tables 1 and 2) during the eight-week summer program.

Cell biology lab (Shishodia). The cell biology lab investigates the cell signaling responses to various environmental stimuli through the use of immunoblot detection, gene-expression profiling, enzyme-linked immunosorbant assay (ELISA), and cytotoxicity assays. More specifically, the lab examines the effect of PGEs and vanadium on transcription factors, MAP kinases, and pro-inflammatory cytokines in human lung epithelial cells and uses computer models to capture and predict the dynamics of transduction pathways.

Microbiology lab (Rosenzweig). The microbiology lab investigates bacterial responses to various environmental stimuli and stressors (biotic and abiotic). In this project, it characterizes PGE and dust exposure to the gut epithelium and representative prokaryotic members of the gut microbiota and also develops a microbial biosensor for human disease.

Environmental chemistry lab (Hwang). The environmental chemistry lab collects and analyzes atmospheric particulate matter (PM; e.g., PM10), soil, and plant samples for analysis of trace contaminants (e.g., polycylic aromatic hydrocarbons). More specifically, it investigates the PGE fate and transport dynamics in PM and road dust. Further, it assesses human exposure to these elements through inhalation of nano-sized atmospheric particulate matter and ingestion of contaminated surface soil and associated potential health risks.

Supercomputing lab (Vrinceanu). The supercomputing lab employs mathematical modeling and simulation of physical, chemical, and biological processes to predict molecular responses to environmental stress using massively parallel high-performance computing. An “Introduction to Game Programming” series of workshops was conducted with students. By the end of the fourth session, students had grasped basic programming concepts and produced a fully functional computer game.

Concept Explanation

In our model, vertically integrated education begins with a direct flow from the project's four principal investigators to the Ph.D., M.S., undergraduate, and high school students. Not stopping with that flow of enlightenment alone (which is typical of more traditional educational programs), there is also shared mentorship among the students (in various peer and near-peer settings). More specifically, the Ph.D. students directly (near-peer) educate M.S., undergraduate, and high school students. Additionally, M.S. students are involved in near-peer education of undergraduate and high school students. Finally, undergraduate students also play an important role as near-peer mentors of the high school students. Additionally, Ph.D. students peer-mentor one another, as do M.S. students and undergraduates.

In fact, peer- and near-peer mentoring programs are proven mechanisms of enriching student learning outcomes, mainly because the learner feels less threatened in seeking the help of a peer (or near-peer) rather than his or her instructor (Singh et al., 2014; Aba Alkhail, 2015; Ross et al., 2015; Smith et al., 2015). By uniquely providing budding high school scientists (at the earlier stages of the STEM pipeline) with both university professors (project co–principal investigators) and college-student mentors, our model results in a more engaged learning community. The alternative model of unidirectional education is not as comprehensive in its breadth, because in our model the near-peer tutors also receive education in pedagogy and mentorship, which entices many of them to seek careers in academia. Our model of vertically aligned education of students from high school through to doctoral programs can easily be adopted by high school, community college, and four-year university faculty with limited resources. They can actively collaborate with one another, as well as with faculty from research-intensive universities, to achieve a shared project aimed at positively influencing the STEM professional pipeline. The inclusion of high school students in our model allowed us to reach deeper into the STEM pipeline and influence a positive change in overall student attitudes toward future STEM employment.

Measurable Outcome

The high school and undergraduate participants were successful in achieving the following measured outcomes:

  1. They prepared two review-article drafts dealing with PGEs (found in dust) and how exposure influences prokaryotic and eukaryotic cells (this work will eventually translate into in-house/college proceedings publications and, possibly, peer-reviewed publications).

  2. They submitted their preliminary research data as part of an internal College Proceedings publication.

  3. They made both poster and oral presentations (N = 7 of each) at the Texas Southern University Summer Programs Symposium.

  4. They are currently submitting their research-data manuscripts to peer-reviewed journals (e.g., Science of the Total Environment, Elsevier) for possible publication (one manuscript that characterizes bacterial responses to dust exposure has already been accepted: Suraju et al., 2015).

  5. They are maintaining relationships with their respective labs and TSU mentors, enabling continued research opportunities through the 2014–15 academic year and beyond.

  6. They are demonstrating improved attitudes toward I-STEM studies and career interests (as evidenced by student survey data).

Results & Discussion

As noted above, the program's deliverables include a quantifiable number of presentations (oral and poster) as well as a number of professional development seminars attended by our participants. To measure improved attitudes toward STEM career options, we administered pre- and post-program surveys to high school and undergraduate participants (N = 12). Because STEM has become a commonly used acronym in today's educational dialogue, we were not surprised to find that nine (75%) of the surveyed participants strongly agreed that they knew what STEM stood for on the first meeting, as evidenced by our pre-survey (Figure 2: Q1). However, when asked whether they understood what environmental scientists do, only five (~40%) strongly agreed. The latter number almost doubled, to eight (~67%), following the program (Figure 2: Q2). This indicates that we successfully informed participants about the nature of environmental science and biology as a field of study. Interestingly, when asked in the pre-survey whether they felt adequately trained to continue their studies or to seek employment (in STEM career paths), only five participants (35%) strongly agreed; in sharp contrast, eight participants (~67%) strongly agreed with this in the post-survey (Figure 2: Q4). These encouraging results strongly suggest that intensive research participation coupled with focused mentorship, professional development, and scientific presentations can greatly improve students' perceptions about their preparedness for STEM careers. In the same vein, students often become discouraged when they are challenged by seemingly endless graphical representations of data, adding to their feelings of ill-preparedness for I-STEM careers and fields of study. To gauge this, we asked participants whether they felt comfortable interpreting data derived from research journals. Not surprisingly, only two participants (~17%) strongly agreed with that statement on the pre-survey. Encouragingly, four participants (~33%) strongly agreed with that statement in the post-survey, which indicates that, through intensive research discussion and analysis of data, student confidence can be cultivated and their data analysis skills improved (Figure 2: Q5).

Figure 2.

Answer frequencies for pre- and post-surveys administered to all students who participated (N = 12). Answer abbreviations: SD = strongly disagree, D = disagree, U = undecided, A = agree, SA = strongly agree. Statistical analysis was carried out to determine STEM attitudes of participants (t-test and sign-test) and to determine whether STEM attitudes had changed significantly at the program's conclusion.

Figure 2.

Answer frequencies for pre- and post-surveys administered to all students who participated (N = 12). Answer abbreviations: SD = strongly disagree, D = disagree, U = undecided, A = agree, SA = strongly agree. Statistical analysis was carried out to determine STEM attitudes of participants (t-test and sign-test) and to determine whether STEM attitudes had changed significantly at the program's conclusion.

Students' interest in seeking STEM careers in industry (Figure 2: Q6), government agencies (Figure 2: Q7), or academia (Figure 2: Q8) was increased following participation in our program. More specifically, comparing pre- and post-survey data, the number of participants strongly agreeing with seeking a career in industry increased from one (~8%) to three (25%) (Figure 2: Q6), and those strongly agreeing with seeking a science career in government increased from zero to two (~17%) (Figure 2: Q7). Although no student strongly agreed with seeking a career in academia either before or after program participation, we did observe an increase in the number of participants agreeing with that statement, from one (~8%) in the pre-survey to three (25%) in the post-survey (Figure 2: Q8). Despite these results, some participants continued to strongly disagree with the notion of seeking out careers in industry, government, and academia following our program (~8%, ~8%, and ~17%, respectively; Figure 2: Q6–Q8). This is likely due to the fact that several of the participants (particularly the high school students) had expressed their commitment to securing careers in health care, and these committed goals did not change during the program.

With regard to the quality of our program, we were pleased to observe that 10 participants (~83%) in the post-survey strongly agreed with the notion that their research data would be published in a peer-reviewed journal, compared to seven participants (~58%) in the pre-survey (Figure 2: Q9). Further, all 12 participants (100%) either agreed or strongly agreed in the post-survey that their projects were novel and challenging (Figure 2: Q11). More importantly, quality is often measured by the desire to remain affiliated with the program (in the future) as well as with the program organizers. In that regard, 10 participants (~83%) believed that they would maintain a professional connection with their mentors at the conclusion of our program (Figure 2: Q10). The latter finding was reassuring for us, because success in I-STEM fields requires active networking and for students to understand the value of referees for their future endeavors.

Finally, we sought to determine whether participants would potentially continue their I-STEM (not health professional) studies in some manner. To that extent, one indicator of willingness to continue a particular study is the desire to present those studies in a regional or national conference. When polled, none of the participants disagreed or strongly disagreed with that notion. However, five participants (~41%) were unsure, in the post-survey, about whether they would present their work in those venues; while seven participants (~58%) either agreed or strongly agreed (Figure 2: Q12). Strikingly, when asked about the likelihood of continuing their I-STEM studies, none of the participants reported being either unsure or that this was unlikely (Figure 2: Q3). In fact, 12 of 12 participants (100%) reported their continuing I-STEM studies to be either likely or highly likely (Figure 2: Q3).

When we evaluated the same survey data (for the same 12 questions) as a frequency phenomenon, we were able to determine statistical significance between pre- and post-survey data. As described earlier, 12 undergraduate and high school students (S1, S2,…S12) answered a survey made of 12 questions (Q1, Q2,…Q12) meant to measure students' attitudes in regard to I-STEM areas of study and research. The same survey, initially given to students at the beginning of the research program, was also given at its conclusion. The answer categories were given scores according to the following coding scheme: “Strongly Disagree” (−2); “Disagree” (−1); “Undecided” (0); “Agree” (1); and “Strongly Agree” (2). Three sets of hypotheses were tested. For the first test, the null hypothesis H0 was that “Students are indifferent to STEM careers and I-STEM studies” – or, in other words, the mean survey score is zero. This test was applied to the pre-research survey. The hypothesis was clearly rejected by Student's t-test (P = 2.3 × 10−6) and the sign-test (P = 1.8 × 10−8). The second test had the same H0 hypothesis – “Students are indifferent to STEM careers and I-STEM studies” – but was focused on the post-research period. These tests provided strong evidence (P = 1.6 × 10−6 and P = 4.5 × 10−9, respectively) that participants developed a positive attitude toward I-STEM areas of study and research. The mean attitude score increased modestly from 1.06 to 1.11 for the pre-survey, compared to the post-survey. The null hypothesis for the third test was that “The students' attitude toward STEM careers did not change significantly when the pre- and post-research surveys are compared.” The H0 for this test could not be rejected by the sign-test at the confidence level of 13% (P = 0.13). A Mann-Whitney U-test similarly failed to reject the H0, with a slightly larger P = 0.24 (Figure 2). In conclusion, although there were some positive shifts following our summer efforts to improve students' perceptions and attitudes toward I-STEM fields and career prospects, the observed positive effects were limited and not statistically significant. This is likely due to small sample size (N = 12), a consequence of limited funding for our important pilot-project effort.

Teacher Implementation

During our eight-week summer program, 25 student participants (including five high school students and seven undergraduate students) selected one of our four research labs in which to conduct their projects. In addition, students also had the opportunity to visit other labs and either observe or participate in research being conducted there. However, we did experience several challenges along the way that are worth sharing for those interested in adopting our model. One major obstacle that was immediately obvious is the difficulty students (both high school and undergraduate) had with our expectation of how long they needed to physically be in the laboratories (i.e., from 9:00 am to 5:30 pm). To minimize this “academic culture shock,” we suggest that those planning to adopt our model strongly consider how students at different levels might best engage in research to different degrees. More specifically, high school students could be scheduled to spend less time in the laboratory doing wet-research than undergraduate students and instead spend additional time engaged in student-based discussions involving research data generated in the laboratory.

Further, we also noted that although students succeeded in all four laboratories, there were some deficiencies in math skills, general biology knowledge, and understanding of scientific method and what scientific research entails. We attempted to remedy this by developing a series of seminars/workshops aimed at strengthening students' skills and understanding. These workshops included (1) how to design and conduct scientific research, (2) lab-report writing and online literature search, (3) responsible conduct in research, (4) components of a manuscript, (5) preparation for oral and poster presentations, (6) computational software utilization for scientific research, and (7) preparation for graduate program applications. Our recommendation to those looking to implement this model would be to provide an additional series of early “crash courses” in (1) a day in the life of a researcher, (2) biology systems, (3) molecular biology, (4) statistics for the sciences, and (5) general mathematics skills. If participants were to be provided these one-hour (each) crash courses during the program's first week, participants would be better equipped to excel within their respective laboratories.

Taken together, our summer program successfully integrated (vertically) the education of high school, undergraduate, M.S., and Ph.D. students. More specifically, our program's research experiences translated into 11 poster presentations, 11 oral presentations, two review articles (in preparation), one published peer-reviewed primary research article (Suraju et al., 2015) and a second in preparation, and improved high school and undergraduate students' attitudes toward STEM careers (as recorded in student surveys). Our survey data assessed only high school and undergraduate students (totaling 12 of 25 participants) because our program's M.S. and Ph.D. students (13 of 25 participants) are already deep within the STEM pipeline, have a strong knowledge of what STEM is, and are strongly considering STEM careers. Although our survey data (which surveyed only the 12 high school and undergraduate participants) demonstrated positive shifts in STEM attitudes, the positive gains made were not found to be statistically significant, due in part to small cohort sample size (N = 12). We feel that the experiment could yield significant data with a larger sample size (i.e., the inclusion of more students in the study). Despite this shortcoming, we strongly believe that the ultimate value of this study has in no way been minimized. Our sample size in this important pilot study was predetermined by our funding constraints, and this initiative was crucial in ensuring prolonged recruitment of I-STEM students within our college.

We believe that if adopted by community colleges and/or four-year institutions that can partner with high schools (and perhaps even middle schools), the STEM pipeline intake can be improved both quantitatively and qualitatively. Through collaborative efforts, even programs with limited resources (financial or research-infrastructure) can collectively participate in this important endeavor. Future I-STEM students will be better prepared, more confident, and better motivated, resulting in the necessary increase in STEM professionals needed to meet our nation's current and future demand. Moreover, we anticipate that such partnerships will lead to higher graduation rates among underrepresented minorities in institutions like ours. Finally, although our model (as presented here) does not specifically include middle or elementary school students, the possibility for their involvement exists. More specifically, our participating high school students (together with their undergraduate colleagues) could develop age-appropriate learning modules (small/portable projects) that could be taken into middle and elementary school classrooms during the academic year by our undergraduate and graduate students to further excite the STEM pipeline, reaching even deeper.

We thank Oscar Criner, Desiree Jackson, Lei Yu, and Aladdin Sleem for their insight and valuable comments. This work was supported by a National Science Foundation RISE award (HRD-1345173 to J.A.R., D.V., H.-M.H., and S.S.) and by a National Aeronautics and Space Administration cooperative agreement (NNXO8B4A47A to J.A.R. and S.S.).

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