As many as fifty percent of teenagers in underrepresented minority groups in the US will never graduate from high school—a substantially higher drop-out rate than their peers.1 Studies have shown that the so-called achievement gap increases substantially with age,2,3 suggesting that environmental influences play a major role in the development of this gap. We believe that InnoWorks can increase enthusiasm and confidence in learning science and engineering for youth who otherwise lack access to exciting educational opportunities outside of the classroom. These experiences can help young students gain an awareness and appreciation of these fields and even consider them as potential career paths. A clear scholastic achievement gap creates a substantial need for programs of this nature; indeed, prior research suggests that summer learning opportunities may be the most important difference between students who continue to excel in school and those who steadily fall behind.4,5 According to Ron Fairchild of John Hopkins Center of Summer Learning, there have been many different studies over the past century that show that the learning loss experienced by poor children in the summertime accumulates to an overwhelming degree, such that “by fifth grade there is almost a two-year gap in achievement scores that can be traced directly to summer learning loss.”6 Recognizing the importance of quality summer learning opportunities, Senators Barack Obama and Barbara Mikulski have sponsored a bill called the STEP UP Act that seeks to establish public funding for educational summer programs.1
InnoWorks makes an effort to recruit students from underserved backgrounds and female students, groups that are traditionally underrepresented in STEM2 *. We target students that have an interest in learning more about science and engineering, but have limited access to resources. Research suggests7,8 that this is the population that stands to benefit most from a program like InnoWorks. The reason for working with middle-school students is because we believe that youth of this age have enough maturity and experience to be able to successfully participate in InnoWorks; at the same time, they are young enough to be highly receptive to enrichment opportunities. Moreover, it is in middle-school where most students turn away from math and science.2,3
Nevertheless, we believe that all students stand to benefit from various elements of the InnoWorks paradigm regardless of background. As such, we will continue to expand the opportunities for all youth to attend our programs and share our methods and experience with other providers of educational enrichment opportunities. Our goal is to not only close the achievement gap, but to raise the level of achievement for everyone.
The rationale behind InnoWorks is based on three central principles. First, mentoring is an effective method for inspiring disadvantaged youth to take their educations more seriously. Dubois et al. state, “the strongest empirical basis exists for utilizing mentoring as a preventive intervention with youth whose backgrounds include significant conditions of environmental risk and disadvantage.”8 Second, youth are full of imagination and enthusiasm, and their creative energies are easier to harness if they are directed towards real-world problems that might positively impact their communities. Hancock et al. came to the conclusion that
Active participation of youth is essential to reenergizing and sustaining the civic spirit of communities. Through skill development in the areas of collaboration and leadership, and the application of these capacities to meaningful roles in community, youth can play a fundamental role in addressing the social issues that are destined to impact their lives and those of future generations.14
Third, InnoWorks is structured on the belief that college-age mentors are ideal role models because of their similarities in age and experience with the middle-school students. Their knowledge of and passion for science and engineering can provide InnoWorks youth with positive influences throughout and beyond the program.
The national call for accountability in education has not generally been applied to supplementary educational programs like InnoWorks. In order to improve the program, meaningful evaluations of the educational innovations and program structure are necessary. Feedback from students and mentors as well as other methods of assessment provide invaluable data with which to improve InnoWorks.
* InnoWorks Founder William Hwang coined the STEM2 (STEM^Squared) term to include Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Medicine.