The Boston-based nonprofit Citizen Schools provides STEM apprenticeships for middle school students. Here a Boston student measures blood pressure during a special event.
In today’s economy, most students will need more than just a degree to succeed in careers in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) fields. In Europe, apprenticeships—which have long been a key element of most students’ education—give students additional training that makes it easier for them to enter the workforce. Such programs are now becoming more prevalent in the United States.
“In apprenticeships, students are able to work on skills like math, science, communications, and writing in new forms; they can discover the science behind baking a cake and the communication needed to explain a research method or discovery,” says Holly Trippett, public relations associate for Citizen Schools, a national nonprofit organization based in Boston, Massachusetts. “In the Citizen Schools’ program model, apprenticeships provide students connections to real-world experts through hands-on projects that give relevance to their academics and prepare them for future success. The students are able to build relationships with adults in diverse fields and see the relevance in their current schoolwork to a future career, with a growing focus on STEM professions,” she explains.
“Teachers are often benefited by the 21st-century skills practice because students are being engaged in a different way than they might be earlier in the school day,” Trippett notes. “Apprenticeships also allow ordinary people, Citizen Teachers, to make a real difference for students…By translating their skills to middle school students, volunteers help set students on a path to success in school and beyond.” These volunteers “receive significant training and support throughout the experience, including the assistance of a AmeriCorps Teaching Fellow to help during lessons.”
Citizen Schools develops apprenticeships “to include many hands-on activities meant to drive and maintain student engagement,” which “helps limit challenges around behavior and participation,” she points out. “By closely partnering with volunteers, students are able to work through their challenges with the material and apply their solutions to real-life situations.” The semester-long apprenticeship “culminates in a presentation, called a WOW!, [in which] students teach back what they have learned to the community.”
At the high school level, some apprenticeships take place during the summer. “Students participating in the Office of Naval Research–sponsored Science and Engineering Apprenticeship Program (SEAP) are given an intensive eight-week introduction to the science and engineering profession at a naval laboratory,” says Reginald G. Williams, SEAP program manager at the U.S. Navy’s Office of Naval Research. “This experience will enhance their academic skills related to conceptual design and analytical reasoning. It will also provide them with hands-on training related to current science and technology challenges, fostering a greater interest in a STEM career.”
Apprentices are selected based on their grades, science and mathematics courses taken, scores on national standardized tests, areas of interest, and teacher recommendations. The program is competitive: “The number of applicants for SEAP exceeds the number of available apprenticeships by a factor of 20 or more,” says Williams. Last summer, “more than 260 students participated in SEAP at [more than] 20 naval laboratories across the country. More than a quarter of those students were returning apprentices,” he notes.
During the apprenticeship, students are “exposed to elements of research, development, testing, and evaluation…at a naval laboratory or research center,” he explains. Apprentices perform such activities as “evaluation of air-vehicle and crew interface, design of robotics for anti-terrorism, chemical analysis of new aircraft anti-icing coatings, laboratory testing of advanced laser communications, onboard hardware testing of helicopter and fixed-wing avionics, night vision research, novel approaches to cloud computing, and microbiological analysis of viruses,” he reports.
When they return to the classroom, “students will be able to leverage their laboratory experience in the academic setting through better problem-solving and team-building skills,” Williams maintains.
Another high school apprenticeship program has connections with the military. Funded by grants from the U.S. Army Research Office, the Research and Engineering Apprenticeship Program (REAP) places apprentices in a university research program for “one-to-one hands-on research” with university professors across the country, says Irene O’Mara, who directs REAP through the Academy of Applied Science in Concord, New Hampshire. Apprentices conduct experiments, carry out research activities, and participate in field trips that introduce them to potential careers in the applied sciences, engineering, and mathematics.
REAP is open to high school students from traditionally underserved populations who are interested in and proficient in science or engineering. O’Mara notes the program is “very competitive…I only get about 90 grants per year, but each year, about 2,000 students apply.”
Both SEAP and REAP provide stipends. “The Navy SEAP stipend broadens the range of students who are able to apply and dramatically increases the quality of applications received. The stipend exceeds what a student would receive working in an average high school summer job… [S]tudent work adds value to naval research projects, and we want to reward their contributions,” says Williams.
The Teacher’s Role
“What the student brings with him or her to the lab is just as important as what he or she returns with to high school. Not only must [students] have a solid background in math and science to support them in a STEM career, [they] must be able to analyze problems and work in a team environment. High school teachers play a pivotal role in developing and encouraging these skills,” says Williams. “Academic curricula that promote STEM and develop self-confidence are the first step in overcoming any challenges that a student might face. Students may also be challenged by their first experience in a professional environment. Teachers can be instrumental in developing a student’s soft skills for interacting with mentors, leadership, and in some cases, military personnel,” he contends.
Stressing the importance of teacher recommendations in being accepted into REAP, O’Mara advises teachers to help students “by encouraging them and giving them a good recommendation.”
“We have found that students who participate in apprenticeships have improved classroom engagement, attendance, grades, and graduation rates,” says Citizen Schools’ Trippett. “In a recent student survey, 80% of students taking apprenticeships with Google expressed interest in pursuing a STEM college major or career. This compares with data from ACT, showing only one-third of eighth graders nationally are interested in STEM majors and careers,” she points out.
O’Mara notes that since REAP began in 1980, 62 participants have gone on to earn PhDs. Many REAP apprentices “didn’t even think they’d go to high school…These are kids that have had no experience in a lab,” she adds. The program “gives them self-confidence” and shows them that “science is nothing to be afraid of,” she says.
Williams says a SEAP apprenticeship “will not only better prepare [students] for college academic success, but [also opens] doors to the Naval Research Enterprise Internship Program (NREIP) or Science Mathematics and Research for Transformation (SMART) Scholarship at the collegiate level. These programs offer additional opportunities to enhance their technical skills and provide the Navy and the nation with highly qualified scientists and engineers.”