Raising A Future Scientist

Raising A Future Scientist participants observe experiments in the bio lab with Professor Lydia Contreras' research group.McKetta Department of Chemical Engineering Professors Michael Baldea and Lydia Contreras recently hosted 18 local middle school students and their families for a day of learning about science, technology, engineering and math to launch the Raising A Future Scientist Program at UT Austin.

Baldea and Contreras established the grassroots program with support from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to connect underrepresented students with the resources they need to enter the science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) field.  The program also partnered with Breakthrough Austin, a local organization that provides a path to higher education for low-income, first-generation college students.

“These are very talented kids,” said Lydia Contreras. “However, they don’t come from a path that you would necessarily predict 100 percent that they will go to college.  This outreach program exposes them to STEM resources they won’t get in school or at home to generate their interest and curiosity.”

Quote from a student participant: "I'd been thinking that medicine was the best thing for people who love math and science, but this has got me thinking more about engineering.  It is something I didn't know about before and now I feel really excited and interested to learn more."According to a study made public by the National Science Board in February 2014, underrepresented racial and ethnic groups— such as African Americans, Hispanics, American Indians and Alaska Natives— accounted for 10 percent of the country’s science and engineering workers in 2010.  Women were also underrepresented, creating just 28 percent of the STEM workforce—yet half of all college-educated workers in the United States are women.

“This program supports the NSF’s efforts to increase participation and broaden the types of people that think of engineering and science as potential careers,” said Contreras. “This program was also created just as much for parents as for kids.”

Graduate student Richard Pattison (right) helps a student and his mother perform experiments.Participants started the day by listening to a panel of STEM educators, including Manor ISD’s head of STEM education, high school teachers, UT admissions representatives, and engineering graduate students, many of whom were the first in their family to graduate college.  The panel discussion was followed by a question-and-answer session. Afterwards panelists joined individual students and their families to create visionary posters representing what big problem they would solve as an engineer.

“It was interesting to see how the panel and poster activities facilitated conversations about education and opportunities between the panelists, parents and students,” said Michael Baldea. “Everyone was very engaged.”

In the afternoon, participants broke into groups and performed experiments under the guidance of graduate-level engineers from Baldea’s and Contreras’ research groups.  Students created filtration systems to purify Raising A Future Scientist participants conduct experiments in the labwater infused with food coloring and used various DNA tools to help solve a mock scientific mystery.

“The highlight is that we brought students in with their parents, some even had siblings, and everyone had a good time learning new things,” said Michael Baldea. “We want to educate families so that the experience will seed future conversations between parents and their children about STEM opportunities.”

Baldea and Contreras plan to grow the program to host future Raise A Future Scientist events on campus.  For more information about the program or how you can participate email Lydia Contreras: lcontrer@che.utexas.edu.

Graduate student Kevin Vasquez watches over as a middle school student performs an experiment in the bio lab.

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