High school lab research influences gifted minorities

Waiting until college to attract minority students to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields may be too late. But mentoring in the sciences at the high school level can help influence gifted minority students to pursue scientific careers, according to researchers at Johns Hopkins.

Researchers from the Johns Hopkins Center for Epigenetics and the Johns Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth found that 86 percent of high-ability underrepresented minority high school students who received college-level science courses coupled with hands-on laboratory research internships as part of the CTY Center Scholars Program said that they planned to pursue a career in science research, compared to 50 percent of similar CTY students who were not in the program.

Andrew P. Feinberg, the pilot study's principal investigator and director of the Center for Epigenetics, called the results "very promising."

"Exposing high school students to this material and to lab research is powerful because through this they discover that science is something they can really do," he says. "It no longer seems arbitrary. They get validation of their interest in science and realize it is a good career for them."

The underrepresentation of ethnic minorities in STEM careers has been a growing national concern for more than a decade. For example, minorities made up 28 percent of the U.S. population but only 9 percent of the science and engineering workforce, according to a 2007 report from the National Science Foundation. College-level enrichment in STEM for minority students has long been seen as one way to address this issue.

The students in the study who received college-level science course work and lab internships while still in high school were all participants in the CTY Center Scholars Program. The study compared 29 CTY Center Scholars, all underrepresented minority students, with a comparison group of 37 students. Students in the comparison group were all underrepresented minorities who qualified for CTY's advanced academic programs and expressed a high interest in science but had never taken a CTY science course. CTY Center Scholars were studied from 2006 through 2009.

The CTY Center Scholars Program was developed by Feinberg in 2005 with the support of CTY and is funded by the National Human Genome Research Institute. It is open to high school students from underrepresented minority groups who qualify for CTY.

Students in the three-year program take one intensive three-week residential CTY course in genetics in the summer, followed by a second summer studying genomics. During their third summer in the program, CTY Center Scholars complete a six-week research internship in Baltimore with faculty at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. To date, 68 students have completed the program.

The study, which was recently published in Roeper Review, was co-authored by CTY research psychologist Kimberly J. Fraleigh-Lohrfink, Center Scholars coordinator M. Victoria Schneider, and Dawayne Whittington, an independent consultant. Roeper Review is a peer-reviewed journal on gifted education.

Elaine Tuttle Hansen, executive director of CTY, says, "This study confirms that by providing the right kind of challenge and support at the right time, we can close the excellence gap. Now the work ahead is clear: We must translate what we know into actions that broaden horizons for more of our brightest future thinkers and leaders."