The lack of diversity in technology- and science-focused careers has been a major challenge for U.S. colleges and universities with science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) programs. White and Asian men dominate in these fields, while members of the underrepresented minority (URM) community—characterized as ethnic minority, low income, and first generation in college, especially from rural areas—are often left behind. High school students and graduates from URM communities have limited access to high-quality educational, hands-on research; career-planning opportunities; and many STEM basics such as up-to-date laboratories, internet access, and computers. Even if they do go to college or university, these students must have role models, peer support, and opportunities to develop self-efficacy available to them to succeed as undergraduates.
To adequately prepare students from URM communities for success in college-level STEM courses, the University of Maryland Eastern Shore School of Pharmacy (UMES-SOP) established the National Institutes of Health (NIH)-National Institute of General Medical Sciences-funded program, Maryland Action for Drug Discovery and Pharmaceutical Research (MADDPR), in 2019. MADDPR provides high school students with opportunities to participate in cutting-edge drug discovery research and be exposed to critical skills in research methodologies and instrumentation. Exposure to biomedical research ideas has been proven to increase the possibility of student success in STEM disciplines. Hands-on activities outside the classroom have been shown to effectively engage youth ages 12–17 as revealed by the Lemelson-MIT Invention Index, an annual survey of Americans’ perceptions about inventing and innovating.The MADDPR program couples foundational science education with mentorship assistance for the participating students from a local school district on the Eastern Shore in Maryland. About 50 students are exposed to a curriculum every year, where they receive hands-on training in research methodology in the areas of drug discovery and biomedical research in a university setting. In these interactive modules, established pharmaceutical researchers engage students and participating teachers and have them experience their unique research area. Assisting are Doctor of Pharmacy and PhD graduate students who facilitate interactions with the high school students.
In addition, the high school students participate in a mentorship program, also referred to as a buddy support system. In groups of six to eight, the high schoolers work with graduate students for training and support during and after the program ends. This continuing support with near-peer role models encourages the high schoolers to stay focused on moving forward with their STEM career plans and provides guidance on college readiness.
Another important aspect of this program is the participation of the high school science teachers. Through this participatory research training program, the high school science teachers have been able to enhance their educational experience and obtain the tools to enable them to more effectively teach their students about new research methodology and STEM careers. The expected outcome of this NIH-science education partnership award (SEPA)-funded program is to foster the students’ critical thinking skills and stimulate their interest in and pursuit of pharmaceutical, health-related, and biomedical research careers.
“I learned about different options for my career at UMES (University of Maryland Eastern Shore). Now that I know these options exist, I feel more inclined to go here. I also learned about different aspects of the job as a pharmacist, which is what I want to be.”
“I find this [Maryland Action for Drug Discovery and Pharmaceutical Research] camp to be extremely valuable to my students. It is structured to introduce many of the topics that we cover in class that I can expound upon later. My students absolutely love it as do I.”
High school science teacher
“Partnership [with the University of Maryland Eastern Shore] opens another door for our students. We’re thrilled about the exposure [students will] be getting as well as the professional development opportunities for our teachers. Having our students on the [University of Maryland Eastern Shore] campus is such a shot in the arm and a validation that our biomed program is on the right track.”
Dr. John Gaddis, superintendent, Somerset County Public Schools
UMES-SOP had certain criteria for the selection of the school district with which it partnered and the development and execution of its curriculum. The university targeted students from Somerset County, a rural, underserved county with a median household income far below the average for even the lower shore of Maryland. Only 15% of high school graduates in this area successfully pursue postsecondary education compared with 38% for the state; the high school dropout rate is 20% compared with 11% statewide. One of the target public high schools in Somerset County, Washington Academy High School & Academy in Princess Anne, has excellent diversity with 41% white, 49% Black, and 1.2% Asian. Most students in this school are provided free or reduced-price lunches, alluding to the economic and financial hardships their families face.
The participating high schoolers in grades nine to 11 were exposed to research-based learning in a UMES-SOP setting for a summer camp, which afforded access to state-of-the-art educational and technological resources. A comprehensive curriculum was developed by participating faculty with input and feedback from high school teachers involved with the national Project Lead The Way Biomedical Science program, a nonprofit organization that designs and applies skills by exploring real-world challenges. Through modules, students learn from established pharmaceutical researchers about their work, participate in hands-on research activities applicable to the students’ diverse population, and explore pharmacy profession practice areas, health literacy, and kinesiology. The lab modules included a diverse set of topics: drug design & synthesis, biomarkers, pharmaceutical compounding of capsule dosage forms, opioid abuse and prevention, retail pharmacy operations, kinesiology experiments, promoting healthy behavior and disease prevention, hospital pharmacy operations, animal behavior software, prostate cancer, COVID-19 diagnosis and vaccines, nanoparticles for targeted drug delivery, dosage form design by 3D-printing, understanding viral infections, drug analysis by HPLC/MS, and antibiotics discovery research. Course instructors and near-peer mentors who work together to deliver these modules are also culturally diverse to meet the target students’ social, cultural, and linguistic needs. Upon the completion of the program, the students continue to engage with their mentors and seek their guidance in choosing a college and a specific academic training pathway among STEM majors.
The program activities and expected outcomes are assessed based on a logic model and cultural competency, which consider the context of the research-based ideas and the diversity of the student group with limited exposure to these ideas. The success of the MADDPR project is determined through a comparative analysis of pre- and post-program surveys of student learning and engagement. Through the SEPA program, the students are expected to have strengthened their noncognitive skills such as self-efficacy—increased confidence in science—and to commit to lifelong learning that can boost their retention in STEM disciplines and ensure long-term success in STEM-related fields.
UMES aims to use the SEPA program to cultivate a pipeline of motivated URM students who choose this institution to pursue a major in a STEM area and diversify the biomedical and clinical research workforce. With the support of their mentors, these students can consider and select from among the accelerated pathways to college education (e.g., dual enrollment) or to professional degree programs (e.g., pharmacy, physical therapy, physician assistant, kinesiology, and rehabilitation services). In addition, the program allows for professional development opportunities for participating faculty and high school teachers to enhance their instruction and support of students, as well as mentorship training for near-peer student mentors.
The initial findings of the MADDPR program have been promising. Among them are:
- Survey data indicate that students completing the program are more focused to explore STEM education and career paths at 88%, remain interested in health professions at 96%, and pursue four-year college education at 83%.
- The strong collaboration between the program administrators and Somerset County Public Schools has resulted in the successful recruitment of high school students annually for the past four years.
- The hands-on summer biomedical enrichment program has been reaching approximately 50 high school students per year since 2019.
- The program successfully implemented virtual instruction in 2020 and in-person instruction in 2021 and 2022 during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Work is in progress to gather National Student Clearinghouse data to track the educational pathways of MADDPR program participants upon graduation from high school and to structure the program to be a college pipeline. These successes have motivated UMES not only to continue the MADDPR Program in Somerset County Public Schools but also to plan to extend the program to other counties in Maryland.
The MADDPR program model is a viable innovative approach to stimulate prospective undergraduate student interest in STEM and biomedical sciences. This adaptable model could be applied to any environment with similar underserved minority demographics to help bolster the rates of college admission and retention. Getting students excited about science and college using out-of-school time and hands-on learning engagement with mentoring support is the key to this program’s success. One unique feature of the program is its offering of a diverse set of topics, which keeps the students’ interest and motivation high. The program builds upon the collaboration with the local school district and its educators, draws on and contributes to best practices in science education, and meshes with Next Generation Science Standards. These research-based standards for K–12 students help educators develop learning experiences that stimulate students’ interests in science and prepare them for college and careers.
Note: Research reported in this study was supported by NIH/NIGMS Science Education Partnership Award under award number R25GM129809. This content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.
University of Maryland Eastern Shore science education partnership research students tackle
SEPA high school students from UMES MADDPR working together with SEPA students from the University of Maryland “CURE” program during a joined lab session on pharmacy compounding.
Second-year University of Maryland Eastern Shore science education partnership research participant presenting her 2021 summer camp experience