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Cracking the Code on STEM Success for Black and Brown Students

Project Lead The Way enables kids, regardless of background, to set goals and build careers in STEM fields.

On a Thursday morning in early June, just outside of Washington D.C, Pratiksha Das and Madeline Morgan stand over a motionless body as they try to figure out how to stanch the arterial bleeding in front of them. What to do first? Tie the tourniquet correctly and the patient will live. Tie it in the wrong place or too slowly and they’ll lose him. It’s a life-or-death situation that the two young women know they could face again and again.

But Pratiksha and Madeline aren’t doctors, nurses, or emergency medical technicians. They’re two juniors in the Bioscience Academy at Wheaton High School, where they’re competing against fellow students to see who really knows how to stop bleeding — even if the blood isn’t real and the patient is made of foam rubber.

Introducing Project Lead The Way

This life-or-death simulation isn’t unusual at Wheaton, an ethnically diverse public school in Silver Spring, MD. Like many other STEM-focused high schools, Wheaton has a mission to educate more Black, Asian, and Hispanic students to work in those fields. Wheaton, however, may have an advantage thanks to the curricula it uses. Wheaton’s Bioscience Academy, Biomedical Magnet program, and Engineering program all use courses designed by Project Lead The Way (PLTW), a nonprofit organization that creates hands-on, project-based courses designed to help students, and especially students of color, see themselves as medical and scientific professionals.

Wheaton also invites local professionals to work with students on specific projects. In Biomedical Sciences, for example, high schoolers are paired with mentors from the University of Maryland’s Ph.D. program to learn skills they can use in their own research projects. Students in Wheaton’s PTLW programs usually do a major research project before graduation.

Historically, such hands-on, professionally mentored learning has been the domain of elite institutions: either private schools or public ones with stringent admissions requirements. But PLTW is working to make this type of learning accessible to everyone. Wheaton’s student body, for example, is 54 percent Hispanic, 24 percent Black, 12 percent Asian, and 46 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, meaning they come from low-income families. PTLW also offers science curriculums for kids starting as young as preschool. The program sees early access to STEM learning as integral to their model.

“I think [starting] in eighth grade is too late,” says PLTW Director of School Engagement Carol Medawar. “[Students] need to see examples early and often and throughout.” The ultimate goal, she says, is to pique kids’ interest in math, science, and a STEM career, early on. “To do that, they have to see themselves and people who look like them as scientists,”’ she adds.

To that end, PLTW schools make a concerted effort to make their roster of video interviews and outside speakers diverse, not just in terms of gender and race, but also LGBTQ+ participants, poor and working-class folks, and people with disabilities. “We make a concerted effort to say this is for everybody, and everybody has access. Everybody doesn’t want to be a computer scientist, but if you can take a computer science unit, then maybe you can learn more about yourself as a problem solver.”

Freedom to explore STEM careers

Wheaton High School was one of the earliest sites for PLTW’s Biomedical Science program, which it adopted in 2004. The academies at Wheaton are small learning communities built around project-based learning in specific fields. They’re open to all students, and there’s no application. Students have the opportunity to earn college credit in PLTW programs, but most students will tell you what’s more important is the exposure to various career options — even those they didn’t know existed — and the ability to figure out what they do and don’t like. Many of the students who opt into the program already have some existing interest in a career in medicine, but some are drawn to the academy or magnet program just to see what the possibilities are.

Madeleine didn’t necessarily know what she wanted to do after high school. She thought about applying to the biomedical magnet program after Jeannette Cruz, the school’s Bioscience Academy leader, talked at the ninth grade orientation about getting the opportunity to solve medical mysteries. But a subsequent visit from a DNA analyst who was invited to speak with Wheaton students sealed the deal. Madeleine — a big fan of forensic television crime shows like CSI and NCIS — decided to apply to the biomedical magnet. “I was like, ‘Wow, yes, that could be really cool!’” she says. “I can do science and do what I love at the same time.”

Pratiksha says there was an immense amount of family pressure to be a doctor. Her family saw medicine as an honorable profession, and in her immigrant family’s culture children are expected to bring honor to the family. Initially, she enrolled in the Bioscience Academy to jump-start her career goal of becoming a pediatrician. But along the way, she’s discovered something about herself. “I realized I really like advocacy and I really liked education,” she says. So now, she’s thinking about a career in either public health policy or special education — the latter of which ties directly to the principles of neuroscience she has been studying.

As part of her current research project, she is looking at how trauma can affect a person’s physiological make-up. As the daughter of Indian immigrants, she is particularly interested in how life-altering events, like emigrating to a new country, affects not just an individual but also future generations of that person’s family.

Her friend Madeleine has been working on a similarly advanced topic: how nanoparticles can be used to cure allergies. Both projects are demanding. But both girls say they appreciate the work they put in, because it helps prepare them for college.

The program has had another positive impact on her, too: “It has taught me how to stand up for myself,” she says. “I’ve been able to make more decisions for myself.” Pratiksha says she’s also felt more empowered to “have difficult conversations with my family” about her career choices, and she’s realizing “there are more ways to be successful than just being a doctor.”

Mission accomplished

Before graduation Pratiksha, like all Wheaton students, has to present the research she has worked on all year. As part of her presentation, she has created a research poster like one a public health authority might print up. She has read dozens of articles to prepare a literature review for her research papers and spent hours refining her presentation. She’s also completed career journals, which include her research on different jobs and her thoughts on the outside speakers she’s heard along the way, which she says have given her a sense of what she wants to do after college. She knows that Wheaton has given her opportunities not many kids ever have.

Including the life-saving simulation. Their foam rubber patient didn’t die, and Madeleine and Pratiksha won the contest.

If you are an educator or parent interested in establishing one of the Project Lead The Way courses of instruction — at any grade level — please click here to get started. The organization will ask for your name and school, and connect you with a representative who can provide further information. You can also check here to see if any schools near you are using Project Lead The Way materials.

This story was originally published by GreatSchools.org

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