Courtesy Project ENGAGE
Students work in the lab (Courtesy Project ENGAGES).

By Clare S. Richie

Katrina Burch, a Coretta Scott King Young Women’s Leadership Academy high school senior, recently took her first plane ride to present her research findings at the American Society for Cell Biology Annual Meeting, thanks to Georgia Tech’s Project ENGAGES (Engaging New Generations at Georgia Tech through Engineering and Science).

Many minority high school students with an interest and aptitude for science, math, engineering and technology (STEM) are not aware of the education and career paths available to them. “Efforts to increase under-represented students in STEM universities must reach students in grades K-12,” explained Georgia Tech professor Dr. Robert Nerem, who founded Project ENGAGES with colleague Dr. Manu Platt in 2013.

The seed of the idea for Project ENGAGES was likely planted more than a decade ago.

In 2000, Nerem invited then Morehouse College senior, Manu Platt to work in his Georgia Tech research lab. Manu was already interested in biomedical engineering, but this experience led him to complete his PhD and become a Georgia Tech professor. “I didn’t know this path existed,” Platt said, crediting Nerem’s mentorship for opening his eyes to different possibilities.

Hands-on lab experience and mentorship are key to Project ENGAGES efforts to expose students under-represented in STEM fields to the possibilities of the STEM world. The program is a partnership between Georgia Tech and three Atlanta Public Schools (APS), Coretta Scott King Young Women’s Leadership Academy, B.E.S.T Academy and KIPP Atlanta Collegiate, whose students are predominantly African American and receive either free or reduced lunches. With partial funding from the National Science Foundation Center for Emergent Behaviors of Integrated Cellular Systems (EBICS), the program provides hands-on research, enhanced science classroom experiences, an after-school club, and teacher training.

The most unique component of the Project ENGAGES is paid student research. With mentoring from Georgia Tech graduate students or postdoctoral researchers, high school juniors and seniors conduct a 12-month research project presenting their progress several times throughout the year, and competing in the Atlanta science fair. The student selection process is rigorous, including an application, letters of recommendation, transcript, resume, essay, parental consent and panel interview.

The schedule is also demanding. Starting in the summer, students learn research skills, soft skills (like diversity/inclusion awareness, time management, and oral presentations), and work in the lab full-time. During the school year, students like returning senior Jade Johnson, attend class in the morning at their high school, spend the afternoon in the Georgia Tech lab, head back to their high school for clubs or sports practice and hit the books at night.

Project ENGAGE participant Jade works at a computer.

In less than two years, Project ENGAGES can already boast strong results. Of the 12 students who started in June 2013, 10 completed the year-long research project, eight advanced from the Atlanta science fair to the Georgia science fair, and two participated in the 2014 Intel International Engineering and Science Fair held in Los Angeles. The five graduating seniors all started college studying STEM fields. For 2014-2015, the paid research program has nearly doubled, including returning seniors like Jade.

This year, Jade is working with breast cancer cells to figure out how to stop them from spreading. “We’re high school students doing things college students do – we’re getting a better advantage and exposure to college,” Jade said. She also credits the program with helping her “open up to public speaking”. In fact, she agreed to speak at the upcoming Martin Luther King, Jr. Annual Commemorative Service at Ebenezer Baptist Church.

Project ENGAGES even follows its students beyond high school. “We stay in touch with them and want them to be successful in life,” Platt said. And over time, students who participated can also become peer mentors to the new students.

The influence of this effort extends beyond the participating students. “Long-term this program is also having a positive impact on Georgia Tech faculty and community.” By interacting with African American APS high school students, Georgia Tech scientists and students experience the value of diversity in the lab and on campus.

What’s next for this innovative program? According to Nerem, “Expansion at Georgia Tech depends mainly on additional resources.” Another hope is that other research universities will adopt the Project ENGAGES model on their campus. Collectively, these efforts could bring more underrepresented students into STEM fields and put them on a path for high achievement and success.

Collin Kelley

Collin Kelley has been the editor of Atlanta Intown for two decades and has been a journalist and freelance writer for 35 years. He’s also an award-winning poet and novelist.