HomeNewsNational Science Foundation funds near-peer mentoring project to diversify STEM workforce

National Science Foundation funds near-peer mentoring project to diversify STEM workforce

Earlier this month, students at Washburn High School in Minneapolis were prepared to enter their chemistry classroom but instead entered a United Nations Climate Action Summit. 

Their teacher, Dr. Angela Osuji, shares a slideshow of the current state of climate science and what’s at stake. The outcome, honestly, seems bleak. Maps show Hanoi, Vietnam, completely underwater by 2100. A simulated image shows the skyscrapers of Dubai now, and then how they will look submerged in water if we allow the planet to continue warming at its current pace. And then there is the tremendous price tag of climate change, expected to be over $54 trillion by the time we reduce the temperature increase to 2 degrees Celsius (C). 

But on this day, these students are not just going to talk about the climate crisis; they’re going to do something about it. In this mock United Nations summit, students propose climate actions on behalf of eight diverse interest groups. En-ROADS, a data-rich online simulation platform, will show the effects of those proposals on the estimated temperature increase, global energy sources, cost of energy, CO2 emissions, and other endpoints in real time. 

The students are given a position briefing and goals for their interest group.  Determining plausible, priority solutions within their interest group appears pretty straightforward. For example, the Industry & Commerce group wants to keep energy prices low while increasing energy efficiency and electrification of transportation and buildings. Meanwhile, the Agriculture, Land, & Forestry group wants to reduce deforestation (tree cutting) and limit afforestation (tree planting) so existing agricultural lands remain in production. They also oppose limiting other greenhouse gases, such as methane. Students translate their goals to a series of actions that they can test on the simulator, making adjustments as they observe how their actions affect both the climate and society. 

A screen shot of the EnROADs web-based simulator which show multiple solutions options that can be manipulated by the user with a simple slider.

En-ROADS simulation.

The En-ROADS simulation has been shown to enhance knowledge, bring about a sense of urgency as well as hope, and inspire students to learn more. That’s why the simulation is one pillar, along with project-based learning and near-peer mentoring, of a new research project, “Empowering Youth to Become 21st Century Energy Leaders,” which has received a $1.1 million grant from the National Science Foundation.

The project team, led by Cathy Jordan and Beth Mercer-Taylor at IonE, is interested in understanding and measuring the impact of an innovative near-peer mentoring strategy, which they propose will move students from a place of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) awareness to seeing themselves being successful in STEM careers. Their intervention seeks to recruit high school students of color and/or from low income households and undergraduates from similar backgrounds to be the ‘near-peers.’ 

“A more diverse workforce better serves diverse customers and communities. Diversifying the workforce is going to require preparing students from a range of backgrounds with relevant STEM content,” says Jordan, the Director of Leadership and Education. “They will need skills like systems thinking, mathematical thinking, and creative problem-solving; and knowledge of the incredible range of career options in this field where those skills can be applied.”

The groups in Dr. Osuji’s class propose their solutions, one at a time, suggesting a new action or undoing a previous one. A small carbon price increase has most groups nodding in agreement, except Developing Nations, who quietly express that the dramatically increased energy price will be overly burdensome to their populations. Nonetheless, we see the temperature increase go from the baseline 3.6 degrees C to 3.3. 

Increased renewable energy and bioenergy subsidies only bring the temperature increase down to 2.9 degrees C, but the solutions have interacted in a way that significantly moderates the energy price spike caused by the initial carbon price increase. As proposed actions bring about visible changes displayed on the En-ROADS graphs, chatter around the classroom picks up. The alignment and tension between various proposals is becoming more obvious.

 “What happens if we max out carbon removal technologies?” proposes one student in the Conventional Energy group. Simulation-based workshops like this one allow students to mirror the scientific discovery process and learn through active, inquiry-based experiences about a personally relevant issue in a local and global context. 

Back in the chemistry classroom, the context that stirs the most impassioned debate is our love of, and dietary reliance on, beef. “Well, would you rather eat a hamburger or die from climate change?!” shouts a student in the Climate Justice Hawks group. Their attempts at solutions that reduce CO2 emissions such as increasing carbon prices, carbon removal technologies, and high taxes on all fossil fuels, have not moved the temperature the way the students had expected. “Because of the previous actions we took, this is no longer a high-impact solution anymore,” Dr. Osuji points out. The class has turned their attention to limiting other greenhouse gasses, such as methane, which was almost universally supported by the various interest groups. Except the Land, Agriculture, and Forestry group, who immediately criticize it as an unfair attack on the world’s cows.

Students also begin to see how their other interests are related to, and have meaningful contributions to, climate solutions. There is growing evidence that interdisciplinary learning and exposure to the diversity of career options in the energy and climate sectors can also diversify the STEM workforce. During a post-simulation debrief, one student said, “I want the simulation to have an option for comprehensive sex education in schools. That will slow the rate of population growth and create economic opportunities for women, particularly in the developing and emerging countries, because they are worried about their economies [being damaged] by all the other changes we’re making.”

Jordan, Mercer-Taylor, and colleagues will replicate experiences like the one at Washburn in fourteen teams at seven high schools across Minnesota and will test the impacts of their near-peer mentorship approach. Undergraduate students from nearby higher education campuses (including the five campuses of the University of Minnesota system, Bemidji State University, Mankato State University, and North Hennepin Community College) will participate as near-peer mentors in half of the teams. The near-peer mentors will build relationships with the high school students, prepare them and support their efforts in simulations, and introduce them to energy and climate career information. In control groups, the undergraduate student will only coordinate and facilitate simulations. The pre-post evaluation of the near-peer mentoring will compare energy and climate knowledge, a sense of urgency and hope, STEM self-efficacy, and STEM career knowledge and interest among the high school student participants. 

This work is a collaborative effort that draws on multi-sector energy, climate, and education expertise and we want to thank our partners: 

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