New York, New York
Two teenage boys working with a robotic rover

Students build and program robotic rovers during a Proyecto Access course at Hostos Community College in the Bronx borough of New York City. Image Credit: Proyecto Access

Middle and high school students in New York City are inspired to become engineers and scientists through the New York State Science and Technology Entry Program, or STEP.

The New York State Education Department founded STEP in 1986. Its purpose is to increase the number of historically underrepresented and disadvantaged students attending college and selecting careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, and other professional fields. There are 45 STEP programs throughout the state engaging students in hands-on activities to interest them in pursuing careers in STEM fields and assisting them in pursuing higher education. The program targets students in grades 7-12.

In New York City, two STEP-sponsored programs have partnered with NASA and The City University of New York to excite students about careers in space exploration: the STEP program at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn and the NASA/STEP Proyecto (Project) Access at Hostos Community College in the Bronx. NASA supports the projects through research opportunities, internships at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and access to materials and NASA experts. Assisting these projects supports NASA's goal of attracting and retaining students in STEM disciplines.

In Brooklyn, Medgar Evers' STEP offers students opportunities in several STEM areas, including robotics, engineering, aerospace and aeronautics, chemistry, and report writing. The five-week summer program, which meets four days a week, and the academic year after-school program, which meets two days a week, engage more than 140 students each year.

A teenage girl, kneeling at the base of a tree, fills a test tube with dirt

A student collects soil samples for a research project analyzing contamination of soil at urban playgrounds in New York City. Image Credit: Medgar Evers STEP

As part of the curriculum, students conduct research projects and present results at the Annual New York State STEP Student Conference/Poster Competition. Crystal Cumberbatch, director of Medgar Evers' STEP, said past research topics have included contaminates in urban playgrounds, solar panels on cars and the effects of soda on the teenage body.

Kevin Jagdipsingh is one of two Medgar Evers' students who took first place in their divisions in this year's state-wide STEP competition. Jagdipsingh said that because of his STEP experience, he now wants to pursue a career in science or engineering. "I am almost certain that I will be working in the sciences in the future," Jagdipsingh said. "I think that without the guidance of the STEP program I would be lost as to what I should pursue as a career in the future. It is, hands down, the most influential experience that I have had in my life."

Cumberbatch said STEP participants earn better grades once in the program than before, and many are going on to study STEM fields. Eleven of the 17 students who graduated from the program this summer are studying STEM areas in college.

One STEP participant worked at NASA as an intern during the program and received a scholarship to college partly because of his work with NASA. Another student has expressed an interest in wanting to be an astronaut. "NASA has been instrumental in making that happen," Cumberbatch said. "It's a really good program that allows students to be really creative in fields they may not normally pursue."

In the Bronx, Proyecto Access serves more than 150 students each year in its seven-week summer program. The project also offers courses during the academic school year, and in 2007 served 200 students in both sessions.

NASA initiated Proyecto Access in 1997 with the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities to broaden its outreach to Hispanics and Hispanic organizations involved with NASA's educational programs. Moise Koffi, director of Proyecto Access at Hostos Community College, said students can participate in a long list of courses including logic and mathematics, introduction to engineering, introduction to computer science, physics, algebra, technical writing, probability and statistics, robotics workshops, and SAT preparations. The project also offers training in rocket simulation and computer-aided drawing software, career presentations, academic and career counseling, and science-related field trips.

A man sets a heavy weight on a small tower to test a student's design, while mentors look on

Proyecto Access students and mentors test engineering structures they designed in class. Image Credit: Proyecto Access

Students learn engineering principles in each course and demonstrate them on Engineering Day at the end of the summer program. Student design projects focus on engineering basics like building towers, modeling houses using computer-aided software, and programming robots.

The career presentations allow students to hear from college representatives and other professionals how to prepare for STEM careers. Past speakers have included representatives from The City College of New York, NASA education specialists, and engineers like Kip Nygren, a colonel in the U.S. Army and former head of the civil and mechanical engineering department at the United States Military Academy in West Point, N.Y. "He (Nygren) really opened the minds of our students about engineering careers," Koffi said. "The main idea is for those speakers to inspire our students so that later on they can become engineers."

Participants take field trips to research labs and engineering departments at New York City colleges and spend a day at a theme park. The theme park is, of course, a fun treat for students but is also a teaching tool, Koffi said. Theme park rides are based on engineering principles, so it's also an opportunity for students to see direct applications of what they're learning, such as Newton's Law of Motion in physics.

Students earn three high school credits by participating in Proyecto Access. Currently only one course is being offered at the college level. "I want to create similar courses so the program can be a bridge to college, so basically we recruit students in middle school, we teach them in high school and send them on to college," Koffi said. "I tell them, think about college, think about research, and think about your bachelor's degree. This is very important for (these) minority students because they don't have enough information about college. Many of their parents did not get the opportunity to go to a higher institution, so who is going to tell them about higher education?"

Annual surveys show that all former Proyecto Access students who are eligible for college are currently enrolled. Many of those are enrolled in STEM fields, Koffi said. He invites students with success stories back each summer to inspire the new classes. "We want to motivate all of our students to succeed in college," he said.

Related Resources
NASA/STEP Proyecto Access   →
NASA Goddard Education Web site
NASA Education Web Site   →
The Real Thing

Heather R. Smith/NASA Educational Technology Services