April 8, 2019

New NASA-funded program to train K-12 students in STEM fields

Outreach components include public lectures, parent nights, and telescope viewing opportunities

Author: Iqbal Pittalwala
April 8, 2019

NASA has awarded the University of California, Riverside a grant of $320,000 to launch a research and training program in STEM fields aimed at enhancing K-12 students’ experiences outside school hours.  

Titled “Launch Pad from High School to NASA: A Research and Training Program in STEM Fields,” the program has received funding for two years. Its goal is to advance STEM education at high schools and beyond by developing a workforce pipeline and working collaboratively with other agencies and universities to train students and teachers in disciplines of interest to NASA.

“There is a shortage of STEM-literate individuals in today’s workforce, which we need to train,” said Bahram Mobasher, the project’s principal investigator and a professor of physics and observational astronomy at UCR. “By immersing high school students from an early age in state-of-the-art science and technology, we hope to show them the road to discovery and the excitement of finding something new. They need to know that the sky is not the limit, but the beginning.” 

Bahram Mobasher
Bahram Mobasher is a professor of physics and observational astronomy at UCR. (Mobasher lab/UC Riverside)

The program has a strong outreach component. The Department of Physics and Astronomy will host a parents’ night twice a year on campus to educate parents about STEM topics. Additionally, telescope sky nights will be held frequently to engage the public in astronomy. UCR faculty and graduate students will also deliver public lectures at high schools and local libraries focused on NASA-related topics. 

K-12 students will also have the opportunity to participate in hands-on science and engineering activities in UCR labs, mentored by graduate students and faculty. One goal of the Launch Pad program is to establish computer labs at high schools to train students in computer programming.

Mobasher is excited the program will offer opportunities to inland Southern California’s high school students, many of whom belong to underrepresented minority groups, and give UCR graduate students experience in coaching students in grades 9-12. High school students will participate in annual workshops at UCR, Mobasher said, during which they will give presentations about their research projects, display posters, take part in question and answer sessions, and make connections with NASA scientists. 

“What we hope to create is a pipeline from the high school to undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral training, which would lead to working on NASA missions,” he added.

The program will host a five-week summer academy at UCR for the next two years during which high school students will take college courses. The academy will include professional development seminars, college counseling, and lab visits. 

“Programs like Launch Pad from High School to NASA allow high school students to become acclimated to a university environment,” Mobasher said. “These students get to see and interact with university students, and will begin to consider college-level education. We hope many will choose UCR for their undergraduate STEM studies.”

Other researchers involved in the program include: Xinnan Du, who will be in charge of outreach activities; Maria Simani, executive director of California Science project, who will recruit students; Owen Long, chair of undergraduate admission for the UCR Physics and Astronomy Department, who will encourage high school students to consider a STEM college major and pursue careers in physics, astronomy, and data science; Harry Tom, a professor of physics, who will teach a course to help prepare high school students for AP Physics the summer before they take the course in high school; John Robertson, an instructional services specialist in K-12 science for the Riverside Unified School District; and NASA scientists Jason Rhodes and Varoujan Gorjian.

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