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Students of all races show similar interest in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), but during college, compared to white students, more Black and Latinx students have found themselves switching majors. This translates into underrepresentation in STEM careers, leaving fewer role models for young Black and Latinx students to look up to and emulate. One way to stop this cycle is to give disadvantaged black and Latino students, from an early age, the resources they need to follow their excitement for STEM wherever it leads.
This is what the Rush Education and Career Hub (REACH) at Rush Medical Center in Chicago is all about. They work to give students and young professionals the educational and professional tools they need to succeed in STEM.
We spoke to Rukiya Curvey Johnson, Executive Director of the REACH program, to learn about what her program accomplishes and how scientist mentors can get involved.
The interview below was edited for clarity.
What is the mission of REACH?
Our mission is to provide innovative, hands-on STEM learning for underrepresented students from cradle to career to increase postsecondary achievement and diversity in health care and STEM professions.
Every day, we educate and empower Black and Latinx students with limited financial resources to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. From early childhood activities, to paid work opportunities in college, we provide the hands-on experiences necessary to access and succeed in the healthcare field.
How does REACH cater to students at different stages of their education?
Research has shown that it’s important to spark interest in STEM/healthcare during kids’ early years. Our pipeline programming approach is a way to strategically ignite interest and provide resources and support to guide Black and Latinx youth along their educational journey to a career. REACH works to provide a continuum of career pathway development as shown in the grade level pipelines below. We prepare youth for all levels of STEM/healthcare fields – from the Medical Assistant to the Physician, Health IT Project Manager, or Research Scientist.
— Click Here to See Our Full List of Grade Level Pipelines
- Grades Pre-K – 5: Early Exploration in STEM and Career Awareness: When students engage with the sciences in a fun and tangible way, they are more likely to develop a positive attitude and adaptability to their solutions. STEMagineers builds interest for STEM and healthcare knowledge in preschool –5th grade students. The foundation is constructed through awareness of STEM and healthcare education and careers, professional development, family engagement, and classroom curriculum and resources.
- Grades 6 – 8: Career Awareness, Skill and Attitude Building: Our middle school programs, like Future Ready Learning Lab exposes middle school students to different career paths in the field of healthcare, helping them:
- Understand the different tracks available
- Consider the personal interests and the education required to get started
- Grades 9-12: Career Exploration, Exposure, Strengthening Skills: Our MedSTEM Pathways Program gives high school students hands-on, work-based learning experiences that make the most of their summer and empower them to make informed decisions about college and career. We also work with them to strengthen their academic preparation and stamina for STEM learning. If you are pursuing a career in healthcare, expanding your knowledge and aptitude outside of the classroom helps our young people prepare for the next phase of life.
In your experience, what is the impact of exposure to STEM career opportunities for those who might not have otherwise had any?
The impact of exposure to STEM career opportunities allows students to think, do, and act in the way that a STEM/healthcare professional does — discovering, exploring, problem-solving, and interacting with others as they learn about the world and how it works. The exposure is providing the environment to foster and promote STEM process skills and learning that is not at all unnatural for students, but also in a way that they understand that their curiosity, wonderment, and interest in the world can be connected to a desire to do and be who they want to be as adults. Oftentimes, seeing this and adding one’s self in that vision can plant those first seeds of reaching toward a STEM/healthcare career.
What is your favorite memory of your time working with REACH?
A couple of years ago, I visited a pre-kindergarten classroom to see what the students were learning. The teacher was facilitating an exercise where she prompted the students to fill in the blank for what they wanted to be when they grew up. The prompt “I am black. I am unique. I am a ___,” encouraged students to imagine a future without limits. Usually, the teacher heard responses like ballerina, firefighter, and actor. Although these are all admirable careers, they often stemmed from what the students saw in popular culture and media. But one young boy broke that pattern when he responded “I am black. I am unique. I am a scientist.”
With a personal and professional mission of empowering more students of color to pursue sciences, technology, engineering, and mathematics, I was thrilled. That little boy was placed in our STEMagineers program to learn more about what he could do with this interest. His passion, enthusiasm, and self-assurance are the first steps in him becoming one of our future healthcare leaders. That little boy, Trayvon, pops into my head every time I reflect on the importance of this work.
How can scientists who want to serve as mentors or provide other resources get involved?
Scientists can provide resources for educators, such as by setting up a virtual field trip (school visit when permitted) to share their own career paths. You can inspire and demystify the illusion of impossibility or unattainability of science/health careers for many. There are some resources available already in this regard, but we’d love to set up a network of STEM professionals to partner with a school for a semester or year.