UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Earlier this year, Penn State was approved to be a new chapter of a science-based program that aims to bring underrepresented students into the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). The name of the program is EnvironMentors.
According to the National Science Foundation, Black Americans, Hispanic Americans and American Indians are poorly represented in STEM fields, constituting no more than 7 percent of the entire STEM workforce.
Gregory Jenkins, an Institutes of Energy and the Environment faculty member and professor of meteorology in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, led the charge to bring EnvironMentors to Penn State. The planned start date is fall 2018.
When proposing to bring the program to Penn State, Jenkins wrote about what challenges students from underrepresented groups may face. He listed challenges including poverty, unemployment and under-resourced public schools, which severely impact the likelihood of successfully completing a STEM degree.
Caroline Rosini, communications intern at the Institutes of Energy and the Environment, sat down with Jenkins to chat about bringing underrepresented students into the STEM field.
Caroline Rosini: What is EnvironMentors?
Gregory Jenkins: The aim of EnvironMentors is to increase the number of underrepresented students going into STEM fields. Typically, a local high school student would team up with an undergraduate student mentor, who would then collaborate with a Penn State faculty member on an environment-based or other STEM projects.
CR: How will Penn State be a unique chapter?
GJ: What I love about having this program at Penn State is that no matter where you go in Pennsylvania, Penn State has a fingerprint. We’re going to use that to our advantage because there are lots of places in Pennsylvania that are underserved and underrepresented. Think of places like Philadelphia, the Lehigh Area, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh and Erie. The program is all about empowering underserved communities. We’ll start in University Park and eventually spread out, so we’ll be one chapter with many arms.
CR: What kind of issues would the EnvironMentors program examine?
GJ: I look at the environment as an atmospheric scientist, so I see issues of air quality and public health being addressed along with food, water and energy issues. I feel that university and high school students can work on these kinds of problems together and also tie their research back to benefit local communities.
Philadelphia, for example, has the largest poverty rate in Pennsylvania. Something like 25 percent of people live in poverty. There are subsequent issues that are associated with that, everything from health disparities to housing issues to air quality. Centre County is second in terms of largest percentage of poverty, and that’s right here where University Park campus is.
CR: Who benefits from the program?
GJ: It’s common for Penn State students that grew up in poverty to feel different here. Quite often they might even feel isolated. But in EnvironMentors we’re like “Look, let’s engage in problems together.” We’re thinking of having first- and second-year college students in the program because I think early engagement is important. The program will give students something to put on their resume because they’re working with a faculty member and gathering experience. Importantly, underrepresented students will have an open channel with a professor. The program will let these students know that someone actually cares about them here.
CR: What is the future of EnvironMentors?
GJ: Currently, we are in touch with State College High School to start recruiting high school students. Lauren Deanes, a graduate student in meteorology, will also be working this summer to organize 5 to 15 faculty mentors to kick-off the program officially in the fall semester.
I want the program to be all about empowering underserved groups and building a community. Students are the future because once they’re aware of problems like poverty or air quality, they have a lifetime to think about how to solve them.
For more information about getting involved with the EnvironMentors program at Penn State, contact Jenkins at firstname.lastname@example.org.