Project TRUE

Research highlights

  • The goal of Project TRUE is to increase the rate of underserved and underrepresented high school youth pursuing STEM majors in college through a summer program that provides mentorship and hands-on applied STEM learning.
  • Five-year research study investigating how key elements (e.g. hands-on STEM learning, mentorship) in Project TRUE contribute to an increase in pursuit of advanced STEM study and career path in the short- and medium-term.

Overview

"Project TRUE (Teens Researching Urban Ecology)" is a five-year research study and youth development program funded by the National Science Foundation's AISL (Advancing Informal Science Learning) program. Through a unique university-zoo partnership, Project TRUE connects youth ages 16-18 with undergraduate and graduate students pursuing a STEM degree at Fordham University. The youth in this program do authentic field research by assisting university students with thesis projects involving a series of urban ecology studies in New York City. The accompanying five-year research study is investigating four key programmatic elements that research has suggested increase interest and participation in STEM. The research will examine the influence of each element on short- and medium-term outcomes over the five-year period of study. The research will further address questions to understand the impact of this program theory within its real-world context, including the degree to which non-project factors (e.g. parental support, school coursework, etc.) influence the model, thus limiting or enhancing impact. The project will conclude in 2019.

Research context

One of the overarching goals of Project TRUE is to increase the rate of underserved and underrepresented high school youth pursuing STEM majors in college through a summer program that provides mentorship and hands-on applied STEM learning. The primary audience for Project TRUE is New York City youth ages 16-18 who are from populations underserved and underrepresented in the sciences. Project TRUE participants are selected from public high schools in close proximity to the four WCS zoos: Bronx Zoo, Queens Zoo, Prospect Park Zoo (Brooklyn), and Central Park Zoo (Manhattan). We are working with students from areas surrounding our zoos precisely because these are areas of significant need. For example, in several neighborhoods surrounding the Prospect Park Zoo, less than 20 percent of students are deemed ready for college upon graduation.

Research question

How do the four key elements of youth development in Project TRUE contribute to an increase in pursuit of advanced STEM study and career path in the short- and medium-term?

Methods

Our research is using the theoretical underpinnings of Project TRUE's design to better understand how this type of youth program contributes to promoting STEM study and intended career paths among youth. This research builds upon the program's theoretical design to interweave four core principles for encouraging youth's long-term engagement in STEM: 1) hands-on STEM experience; 2) awareness of the utility of STEM learning in the world; 3) exposure to a role model; and 4) interaction with peers with shared STEM interest. In addition, the research does not presume that out-of-school programs such as Project TRUE, or their component factors, influence youth in a vacuum. Because we are unable to manipulate the program to withhold various elements of the design (e.g. engaging a cohort without a hands-on STEM research project) to experimentally test the contribution of each factor individually, the research is designed to assess and tease apart the contributions of each factor statistically. We are developing and testing reliable survey-based measurement tools to determine the extent of each factor's influence using multivariate analysis. Within this design, measures for external, non-program factors drawn from the literature are also being developed, tested and included in the analysis. As a result, this research will present a contextualized picture of how the underlying principles of youth programming in Project TRUE interact with one another and with external factors to contribute to the STEM-focused academic and career paths of youth over time.

Major findings

  • 75% of Project TRUE high school participants demonstrated a change in career intentions, including both identifying a new career interest and bringing greater focus to career intention.
  • Of all the external factors measured that might influence students' choices, Project TRUE ranked the highest.
  • There was a correlation between student perceptions of mentorship quality with mean Project TRUE influence (r=-.298, p=.049).

Lessons learned

  • Students who were highly focused on a particular career when entering Project TRUE tended to broaden their areas of interest, while others who started out more generally interested in STEM tended to focus more on environmentally related disciplines.
  • Students who reported hiding their STEM knowledge and interests in school found it refreshing to have their interest and expertise celebrated among Project TRUE peers.
  • All mentors reported growth in their capacity, skills, and confidence as mentors.

Key research staff

  • Karen Tingley, Principal Investigator
  • Dr. Brian Johnson, Co-Principal Investigator
  • Dr. Jason Aloisio, Co-Principal Investigator and Program Coordinator
  • Dr. James Lewis, Co-Principal Investigator (Fordham University)
  • Dr. J. Alan Clark, Co-Principal Investigator (Fordham University)
  • Dr. Jason Munshi-South, Co-Principal Investigator (Fordham University)
  • Dr. Joe Heimlich (Lifelong Learning Group)
  • Dr. Rachel Becker-Klein (PEER Associates)
  • Sarah Dunifon

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under grant nos. 1421017 and 1421019. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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