Education Trends

Student Internships: Building a Bigger Pipeline to STEM

May 5, 2011

For students who are curious about science, a medical center offers a world of interesting questions to investigate. Since 2005, hundreds of motivated high school students have spent their summers as paid interns at the esteemed Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, where they conduct original research about everything from hand-washing protocols to heart disease. They present their completed projects, science-fair style, to medical experts and other community members.

Their scholarly work is impressive, but it's just the first stage of an innovative, arts-infused program called eXpressions that is building a bigger and more diverse pipeline for students pursuing health careers.

At a time when everyone from the president to industry leaders is calling for a new emphasis on STEM education, the eXpressions program looks like a clear winner. It offers an engaging vision of interdisciplinary project-based learning, a model of school-community collaboration, professional development for teachers, and strategy that's working to attract more students to scientific and health careers.

Since 2005, nearly 600 alumni of the program have earned $23 million in college scholarships. Three are already in medical school, more than 100 are enrolled in pre-med programs, with still more pursuing careers in nursing, pharmacy, and other science-related fields.

For many of these young scholars, a deep interest in science began not in a laboratory but in an art classroom.

Connecting to Their Passions

The arts and writing come into the eXpressions program during phase two, which kicks off each fall. This is when a new wave of students interprets their classmates' summer research projects in their own creative ways. One student, for instance, fashioned an elaborate piece of wearable art to represent how the body responds to blood transfusions. Another created a sculpture to convey the urgency of fast response for stroke patients. Their artwork requires creativity plus a thorough understanding of the science research they are interpreting. Art and writing projects are also judged by expert panels.

"Art students may not start out feeling excited about science research," admits Rosalind Strickland, who heads the Office of Civic Education for the Cleveland Clinic. "But we've found that students do get excited by science by approaching it through their passion. Science is no longer something they read about in a textbook. It's something they learn about from their peers and can connect to their own lives. Many tell us that they got first involved because they love art, but now they're interested in science."

These two fields "are not all that different," adds Bryan Pflaum, associate director of Creative Learning, the K-12 education initiatives of the Cleveland Clinic. "Scientists are trying to answer questions. Artists go through a similar process of problem solving," he says.

No Boundaries to Learning

The Cleveland Clinic has continued to break boundaries with its K-12 programming, using technology to reach an increasing number of students and teachers. "We're constantly looking to take this to the next level," Strickland says. "We want to take what we do inside the walls of the clinic, marry that with the education system, and bring real-world experiences into the classroom. There's plenty of room for more innovation."

As the eXpressions program has matured, it has added standards-based curricula along with professional development for teachers. High school students can earn college credit hours, and have racked up 900 credits so far. There's even a nine-week research residency for teachers.

Technology has removed geographic constraints. Although most of the summer interns continue to come from northern Ohio, their projects are now archived online. Other student interns, interested in digital media, create video showcases called My Research Illuminated. The online content enables more schools to participate through art, writing, and even math classes. Last year, more than 800 art and writing entries came in from as far away as Florida and the country of Oman. The program also includes a math component, which challenges students to explain -- and visually represent -- the mathematics of prize-winning science and art projects.

The Power of Partnerships

Through a partnership with One Community, a nonprofit broadband network, the Cleveland Clinic also hosts live videoconference events, including open-heart surgeries and other medical procedures that students can observe. Because this is a teaching hospital, the surgical staff is accustomed to answering questions while they work. Distance-learning classes for middle school and high school students focus on topics like bioethics.

The 90-year-old clinic has always embraced education as part of its mission, Strickland says, but that used to mean "preparing the next doctors. Now, we are looking at shortages across all the health care professions." Northern Ohio, like many parts of the country, "has moved away from manufacturing. Health care is the occupation of the day," she says. "When you look at how unprepared students are in science and math, we know we have to find new ways to create this pipeline."

At a time when school budgets are shaky, this community-school partnership is bringing a hopeful message and new resources into K-12 education. Programming is funded out of the Cleveland Clinic's operating budget. It's a sound investment, Strickland insists, for an employer serious about maintaining a talented workforce. "If we want to prepare the next leaders in health care," she adds, "we can't wait until they are in college. They need to be passionate about science and math in a way they never have before. And that has to start early so they can be academically prepared to pursue their dreams."

That's a message worth sharing with any local employers who are looking for strategic, positive ways to engage with K-12 education.

Have you taken part in the eXpressions program with your students? Please tell us about the experience. What other creative ideas do you have for igniting students' passion about science and expanding the STEM pipeline?

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