MSEN Program Expands Reach To Edgecombe County to Bring STEM Experiences to Rural Students

A teacher helps a student with virtual reality development in an MSEN Saturday Academy class. 120 Edgecombe County Public School students will attend an MSEN Saturday Academy engineering-based class featuring virtual reality development and 3-D modeling and printing of objects. 

Braska Williams, director of the North Carolina Mathematics and Science Education Network Pre-College Program (MSEN) at the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation, knows the impact his program has had on students. From a previous National Science Foundation (NSF) grant, he’s learned that MSEN students have been shown to have the most academic growth among their peers, increased exposure to four-year universities and some even said that they felt challenged for the first time in the program. Now, because of a new four-year, $1.4 million NSF grant, MSEN will expand its program beyond Raleigh and into Edgecombe County Public Schools (ECPS) to address the lack of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) access for middle school students in the district.

“I’ve seen how impactful a program like ours could be in a rural community from previous projects,” Williams said. “That made me want to look at some other rural counties we could bring our program into.”

MSEN is a STEM enrichment program that provides 6-12 grade students from underserved populations with experiences that will equip them to attend a four-year college or university to pursue majors in STEM fields. As one of four public university campuses across North Carolina that offers this program, the NC State chapter partners with school districts and schools in northeastern and central North Carolina. The program exposes students to STEM careers, teaches STEM enrichment courses, shares information about college admissions and scholarships, and provides opportunities to participate in local and state STEM competitions. During the 2019-2020 school year, MSEN served 284 Raleigh middle and high school students who either attended an MSEN elective class or afterschool club.

The MSEN program is only one component of the grant-funded project, entitled “Developing STEM Identity in Rural Audiences through Community-Based Engineering Design.” The project is an extension of the work Williams has previously done with Tameshia Ballard Baldwin, Ph.D., the grant’s principal investigator (PI), a teaching assistant professor with the NC State College of Engineering and an affiliate faculty member in the NC State College of Education’s Department of STEM Education, within the program area of Technology, Engineering, and Design Education. LaTricia Townsend, Ed.D., director of federal program monitoring and support at the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction and former director of evaluation programs for the Friday Institute, is co-PI on this project. Williams is senior personnel. The NC State College of Engineering is managing the grant.

The goals of this project are to increase the self-efficacy of ECPS students at Phillips Middle School and West Edgecombe Middle School as well as enhance their ability to complete STEM tasks, increase their interest in STEM and STEM careers, and build their STEM identities. 

The U.S is currently facing a shortage of qualified STEM workers, with many statewide and national efforts in place to recruit and retain more students in STEM fields. However, Baldwin said rural students are often left behind because they lack equitable access to high-quality STEM education opportunities.

“That was the main reason why we decided to pursue this project, because rural areas face unique challenges, such as not having adequate professional development opportunities for their teachers, so they can’t get the STEM training that they need to be able to then deliver that instruction to the classroom,” Baldwin said. “They also face challenges with proximity to resources. Because of this, we’ve decided we should try to do something about this [issue].”

One of the project goals is for MSEN to provide 120 students with in-depth STEM experiences outside the classroom, including participation in its Saturday Academy and summer camp. The Saturday Academy class will be an engaging technology, engineering-based class featuring virtual reality development and 3-D modeling and printing of objects. 

Project staff member and Friday Institute Research Associate Callie Edwards, Ph.D., will focus on the impact of the program on students’ and teachers’ STEM content knowledge and awareness of STEM career pathways. Through site visits, surveys, assessments, interviews and more, Edwards will collect and analyze all qualitative and quantitative data from the project in an effort to better understand and promote practices that increase student interest and capacities to pursue STEM careers.

Both Edwards and Baldwin were first generation college students who understand what these students are going through and have a personal interest in their success. Edwards participated in UNC Chapel Hill’s MSEN Saturday Academy, among other programs, herself when she was a high school student, and it really helped inform her future career opportunities.

“These programs were all really beneficial in seeing what’s possible,” Edwards said. “I didn’t necessarily know that working in higher education was a career choice until I had mentors when I was in college. Growing up, you hear about [being a] doctor, lawyer, nurse, and that was kind of the extent of what I knew. It was those relationships and being a part of programs like that that kind of opened my eyes to what was possible and that I could do it.”

ECPS also understands this, and Matthew Mayo, director of technology and media for ECPS who oversees digital teaching and learning for the district, sees this grant contributing to their larger equity vision in which their schools are “a place where opportunities are no longer predicted by their social, cultural or economic factors.”

“To me, that’s almost the heartbeat of what this grant is about and that’s the doors it’s going to open up for all of our kids,” Mayo said. 

The Friday Institute brings together researchers, practitioners and policymakers to lead the transition to next-generation education systems that will prepare students for success in the digital-age world. It conducts research, develops educational resources, provides professional development programs for educators, advocates to improve teaching and learning, and helps inform policy-making. The Friday Institute is a part of the NC State College of Education. Visit fi.ncsu.edu to learn more.