New UArizona program looks to diversify STEM engagement among local youth

students sitting around a table working together to build something

Lauffer Middle School students engage in a hands-on group activity building and estimating the size of desert plants and creatures during a visit to the university. The trip is part of a new mentoring program aimed at increasing opportunities for K-12 students in science, technology, engineering and math disciplines.

Craig Baker/Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy

In mid-September, 80 students from Billy L. Lauffer Middle School in southeast Tucson boarded a bus with parent chaperones and Jackie Nichols, a science, technology, engineering and mathematics teacher. Their destination: the University of Arizona's award-winning Environment and Natural Resources 2 building. 

Few of the middle schoolers had ever seen the LEED-platinum-certified structure with its dripping curtains of living ivy and canyonesque courtyard walls. That's because, despite living just 10 miles away from the research university, for many of these students it was their first visit to campus. 

Adriana Zuniga-Teran

Adriana Zuniga-Teran

As pupils in Nichols' STEM class, the children are participating in a new mentoring program led by Adriana Zuniga-Teran, assistant professor at the Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy and the UArizona School of Geography, Development and Environment. Assistant professor of practice Jennifer Mason – also in the School of Geography, Development and Environment – and assistant professor of practice Arin Haverland, in the Department of Environmental Science, are the program's co-principal investigators.

The program is a partnership with Nichols and fellow middle school teachers Emily Fimbres and Keona Hunter, as well as Josh Schachter, executive director of CommunityShare, an organization that connects educators with community partners to help students learn through real-world projects.

The mentoring program was recently awarded $99,892 from the UArizona Office of Research, Innovation and Impact's Technology and Research Initiative Fund on Water, Environmental, and Energy Solutions to support its first year of operations. The program aims to help middle school students in Tucson's Sunnyside Unified School District engage in STEM and, hopefully, increase the odds that more of them will one day attend college. 

Multitiered impact

According to the Pew Research Center, Hispanic Americans are underrepresented in STEM fields. A 2021 analysis of federal government survey data collected in 2017-19 suggested that, although Hispanic workers make up 17% of the total workforce, only 8% of STEM workers are Hispanic. 

The changing demographics of the U.S. also place young people of color at the vanguard of the next generation. A recent study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that 53% of children in the U.S. are children of color. This percentage is expected to increase.

Zuniga-Teran, who moved to Tucson from Monterey, Mexico, in 2007 to pursue her graduate education at UArizona, explains that the project leverages "an intergenerational peer youth mentoring" approach for students in the Sunnyside district, which serves a population that is 90% Hispanic, according to the U.S. News & World Report. 

The tiered structure of the mentoring program employs four UArizona graduate students to serve as mentors for six undergraduate students. Those undergraduate students, in turn, act as mentors for 11 students at Desert View and Sunnyside high schools, who then are mentors for the Lauffer Middle School students.

By pairing younger students with near-peer mentors, Zuniga-Teran says, the project helps keep the younger students engaged in learning.

The program also includes a hands-on research component in which the middle school students will survey and map features of Tucson-area parks situated in communities with differing levels of socio-economic privilege. The students will participate in visits to the university, where they will have the chance to share their findings with community leaders.

Mutual benefits of mentorship

Jazmine Harris is a seventh grader at Lauffer. She says that before attending Nichols' class last year, her engagement with science was minimal. 

"Mostly we would just watch a video and kind of take notes," Harris says of her elementary science classes. Nichols' class, she says, is "definitely more hands-on than any science class I've ever done."

She says this makes the classwork more engaging and easier to retain what she has learned. Harris says that the peer-mentoring structure also has benefits.

"Some kids are really nervous talking to teachers," she says, "… but (with) a student, you can let them know (you're struggling with something) and you don't feel judged."

Harris also sees the potential value of including more diverse voices in problem-solving efforts like the one she will be working on in Nichols' class.

"If we had a bunch of people that thought the same way, then we wouldn't really have different ideas to add and make it better," she says, adding that "having a bunch of different minds working on one project helps it be more complete."

Desert View High School freshman Shane Lezama is one of the mentors for the middle schoolers. He says that the benefits of mentoring aren’t limited to the mentees. 

Lezama said the most impactful component of serving as a mentor is "being a role model for the students you're working with … (and) even mentors that you are working with, you can also be a role model for them. I think it just helps you build more character."

Over the course of the next six weeks, the middle school students will begin researching and planning their community improvement projects with help from Nichols and their team of mentors. The students will return to UArizona on Oct. 30 for their second of four visits to campus to meet with representatives of local government and other community leaders.

Learn more about the peer-mentoring program on the Udall Center website.