A Bridge to the Stars

An innovative pipeline to improve STEM diversity

Inner-city high school students in Kansas City now have a unique opportunity to learn in a college classroom with a professional astronomer through A Bridge to the Stars Scholarship and Mentoring Program at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

The man behind the program is Daniel H. McIntosh, Ph.D., an award-winning professor of physics and astronomy, and a scientist researching the birth and growth of galaxies using the Hubble Space Telescope. As a teacher, McIntosh shares his knowledge, and his enthusiasm, to inspire others.

The Bridge to the Stars Program is a way to reach high school students when they are still excited about learning. McIntosh’s program provides low-income and underrepresented minority students, or Bridge Scholars, full scholarships (tuition, fees, course materials and a Metro bus pass) to enroll in one of his interactive Introduction to Astronomy courses. The goal is to use a semester-long bridge opportunity to reach high school students who traditionally do not self-identify with high-tech careers. The goal is to engage their interest in pursuing a Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) education.

Lack of a diverse workforce in STEM fields is a well-known problem. McIntosh’s Introduction to Astronomy course is a student-centered exploration of the cosmos that provides the exposure and engagement that are critical to encouraging the pursuit of a STEM career, McIntosh said.

Each Bridge Scholar must be under-privileged (reduced lunch recipient) or an underrepresented minority, in 10th grade or higher during the enrollment period. Students gain real-life college experience, university credit for a freshman science course and a support system of dedicated UMKC undergraduates serving as Bridge Mentors.

“We need something that attracts students earlier; that’s more extended, engaging and inspiring,” McIntosh said. “Through this program, we’re providing students with high impact exposure to science through innovative experiential learning with a professional scientist. It’s a bridge between high school and college, and it fosters student success.”

Since the program began four years ago, 31 scholarships have been awarded and 97 percent of scholars have passed the course with an average grade of B. Primary funding comes from the NASA Missouri Space Grant Consortium, part of the National Space Grant College and Fellowship Program. Additional funding during the first trial semester was provided by the UMKC College of Arts and Sciences, and later by the Hispanic Development Fund.

Fatima Mohamed is a UMKC junior majoring in computer science and biology. She took McIntosh’s class in 2014 while a senior at Lincoln College Preparatory Academy.

“I’ve always had a fascination with astronomy,” Mohamed said. “But high schools do not teach astronomy. Taking this class was a unique opportunity.”

Before participating in the Bridge to the Stars Scholars program, Mohamed said she didn’t think she liked math or science. Since taking that first astronomy class, she’s wanted to learn more.

“If it wasn’t for his class, I wouldn’t be minoring in astronomy,” Mohamed said. “He’s amazing.”

McIntosh’s interactive approach to teaching astronomy is extremely effective with students.

“We’re born naturally curious,” McIntosh said. “There’s a huge, un-tapped resource of STEM professionals. And astronomy is the gateway drug to STEM.”

While the program capitalizes on the high school students’ desire to learn, McIntosh said the mentorship element keeps both high school and college students engaged.

“Mentoring experiences will enhance training and interest in pursuing STEM education careers,” McIntosh said. At the end of each semester, the Bridge Scholars and Mentors meet with McIntosh for STEM career counseling and advice.

Derrick Jennings II, UMKC junior, has been a Bridge Mentor twice. He is studying physics and French at UMKC and plans to get his master’s and doctorate in particle physics. He wants to be a professor of physics and liked McIntosh’s approach to teaching — by fostering relationships and student success. Being a Bridge Mentor has helped him as he plans for a future as a professor.

“I saw it as an opportunity to develop my teaching skills and see the practical workings of this inspiring teaching style,” Jennings said. “I felt so lucky to run into a physics professor who taught physics the way I aspired to teach it. So of course I wanted to learn as much as I could from this man.”

Both Mohamed and Jennings recommend the Bridge to the Stars Program to qualified high school students, and potential UMKC mentors. The deadline for interested students to apply online for Spring 2017 is Oct. 14.

“Don’t be intimidated because it’s a college class,” Mohamed said. “Don’t be afraid.”

“If you want an inspiring interaction with science, if you want to develop scientific critical thinking skills, if you want to see how college can be when it’s at its best and if you care about the health and diversity of STEM fields, you should be in this program,” Jennings said.

“This program is not something that happens to you,” Jennings said. “It is something you are a part of.”

[UMKC Today]