Not a lot of things motivate middle schoolers on a Monday morning, but when Steve Cox puts a butter knife to a carrot, cuing a sound effect squeal from his laptop, the kids light up. Cox is a Northern New Mexico College professor starting a science-focused mentoring program. Hands shoot into the air when he asks if kids want to try playing his vegetable orchestra. A trio of carrots and a jalapeño tethered to his laptop with electrical wires chime out the sounds of synthesizers when touched with a finger, provided a wire cable is in the other hand.
“In the future, we’re not going to be interacting with computers with keyboards,” he tells them. “We’re going to be interacting in much more creative ways—that you guys are going to come up with.”
This is Cox’s second semester at the college in Española, but it didn’t take long to spot a problem that’s hardly unique to New Mexico: a shortage of women and Hispanics in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) programs. Cox’s quest to chip away at this issue has landed him in middle school classrooms to recruit students to a new science club. The goal is twofold: to engage students in hands-on ways to excite them about careers in STEM fields, like using Makey Makey to turn refrigerator detritus into a musical instrument, and establish a network of support that includes mentors just a few years older than them.
“Poverty has led to low educational aspirations and expectations that plague our entire community,” he wrote in his proposal to the National Science Foundation. “As such, its disruption requires a collective effort from our entire community.”
"Poverty has led to low educational aspirations and expectations that plague our entire community."
- Steve Cox
The National Science Foundation recently awarded him almost $300,000 to support the program, its goals of increasing the presence of local STEM mentors and its research questions around the effect that mentorship has both on the protégé and the mentor.
Even before that financial support materialized, he started taking college kids into classrooms in nearby schools, but wanted to craft something sustained. This program joins 36 others selected for the first-ever NSF INCLUDES grants, a nationwide initiative to increase the presence of underrepresented groups, including women, Native Americans, African Americans, people from rural areas and those of low socioeconomic status.
“It’s such a hard problem because of history, society and poverty,” Cox says. “It’s not something that we’re going to solve in our little collective. It’s not something that’s going to get solved at Las Cruces. It’s going to take a collective response.”
A few weeks ago, after the National Science Foundation director toured Sen. Martin Heinrich through Española to discuss this program, the senator emerged with a pithy summation, Cox reports: “STEM is the ticket to the middle class.”
The theory is to craft mentorships that hit a “sweet spot”—a gap just broad enough that there’s respect, but not so wide that trust is compromised.
“I’m a white guy from Chicago—for them to use my life experiences as their role model, that’s a fantasy. But if I bring in kids who are alums of these schools, they’ve had the same cultural and financial constraints these kids have,” Cox says. “A natural mentor—someone from the same community, same socioeconomic conditions—has an easier time establishing trust, and without trust then we’re just kind of peddling technology and saying, ‘Get on the band wagon.’”
Mentorships will match four or five students per mentor and focus on letting kids experiment and investigate their own questions, practice exercising the courage to create, as well as collaboration, critical thinking and resourcefulness. That means building 21st-century skills, says Camille Ulibarri, an eighth grade science teacher at Pojoaque Valley Middle School and co-sponsor of the club there.
“That’s why it needs to start with such low-level learners and such young kids … because I believe that creativity is stifled as they progress to 12th grade,” she says. “If we can introduce this at a young age, keep that creativity really intact, really promote it from seventh to 12th grade, maybe, just maybe, as soon as they graduate, when they look into their college career to decide what they want to do, it is hopefully in a STEM field.”
Thirty-one of her 170 students have expressed an interest in joining the club—and will go through an application process that includes obtaining a letter from a teacher and maintaining a 2.0 GPA.
Editions of this program will roll out at middle and high schools in Española, Pojoaque, McCurdy, El Rito and Embudo will reach into two libraries, one museum, Los Alamos National Laboratory and four local youth organizations.
Northern New Mexico College gets more inquiries for potential new hires than they have students enrolled in those programs, Cox told the seventh graders, so he’s there to pique their curiosity. In those last minutes before the bell rings, when fidgeting and packing away notebooks usually takes over, he pulls up one of the projects designed with the programming software the club members will use. The image of a killer whale swims on to the screen, spirals once, and then hovers. In just a few moments, the students notice the whale follows the mouse pointer. The murmurs ramp up from vaguely amused to full-blown excitement. The hope is that it sticks.