UMBC develops future STEM teachers, researchers through pilot program pairing high school and college students

This fall, Kimani Reed will enter UMBC as a new student in the pre-nursing program, but she’s already a member of the UMBC community. Through a partnership between UMBC and Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Baltimore, Reed worked on campus one day a week throughout her high school career, gaining experience in several UMBC offices.

“From freshman year all the way through senior year, I met new people at UMBC who always supported me,” Reed says. When she worked in the UMBC Shriver Center, she shares, “The warm welcome I felt when I walked through the doors on the first day already made UMBC feel like home.”

Reed’s connection to The Shriver Center will continue this fall. She has chosen to participate in the Shriver Living Learning Community, a residential community for students committed to pursuing service-learning and community engagement.

Championing student success

Knowing she had her eye on a medical career, Reed’s UMBC mentors frequently pointed her toward programming that would help her reach her goal. So when her supervisor at the Shriver Center, Lori Hardesty, associate director of applied learning and engagement, found out about a special pilot program in the life sciences, she immediately recommended it to Reed.

Hua Lu, professor of biological sciences, led the pilot, and Reed jumped at the chance to work with her. She and Shaojie Chen ’21, chemistry, made up one of four student teams, each with one UMBC student and one local high school student. 

Each team participated in a weeklong program in the summer of 2019 funded by the National Science Foundation and organized by Lu. The Research Training for Future Science Teachers and High School Students (RTTS) program has two goals: to create early research opportunities for high school students interested in STEM and to better prepare the next generation of STEM educators. 

Kimani Reed (left) and Shaojie Chen work together in Hua Lu’s lab during the summer program in 2019.

Transformative experiences

That’s how Reed found herself spending her 17th birthday, on a Friday in June last summer, in Hua Lu’s plant genetics lab at UMBC. She arrived by 8:30 a.m. to add the finishing touches to her presentation with Chen on CDF3, a protein found in arabidopsis plants. 

Chen and the other UMBC participants were Sherman STEM Teacher Scholars. The Sherman program prepares undergraduates to be culturally responsive and compassionate educators, and many scholars work in Baltimore City. Their partners were all high school students, with the other three (beyond Reed) coming from Baltimore City College High School.

When Lu looks at Reed, Chen, and the other program participants, she sees the future of STEM teaching and learning. “I think we need to provide early, discipline-specific training for our future teachers,” she says. And for the high school participants, “It’s a lot of work, but when you see you can provide this many students with a hands-on experience, it’s definitely worth it.”

Lu is learning from these students’ experiences as she prepares for the program’s next iteration. The pandemic prevented her from running the program in person in 2020, but she is excited for it to relaunch in 2021.

Digging deeper

Based on Reed’s recent study of genetics in high school biology, sometimes she mentored Chen, rather than the other way around. The pair spent the week exploring the structure and function of CDF3 through hands-on laboratory work and research in scientific online databases.

Ben Lockwood (right) and Youssef Maroud work together during the summer program in 2019. Photo by Hua Lu.

“I learned that molecules do so many different things. I knew they were complex, but looking at them up close through the different databases and digging deeper, I learned so much more,” Reed says. “This experience further confirmed my desire to pursue a medical-related career.” Reed has chosen nursing, after giving the biology major her full consideration thanks to her experience with “Mama Lu,” the students’ nickname for Lu based on her supportive attitude.

Whether a student ends up pursuing research or not, Lu says, an experience like this summer program can be a useful eye-opener about what a research career would be like.

Research for teachers

Ben Lockwood ’20, biological sciences, came at the experience from a different angle—he’s long known he wanted to pursue a teaching career. He was initially skeptical of a research experience, but thanks to the program’s team-based approach, he found it rewarding.

“I definitely feel like I gained from this research experience. And I think it was because I got to do it alongside a high school student,” Lockwood says. “It furthered my understanding of the science content, but it also helped grow my teaching skills, and pair them together, which I hadn’t experienced before.”

Working together with his partner, Youssef Maroud, got Lockwood thinking about “how I would approach labs and experimentation in the classroom,” he says. For example, he began to consider how he might partner with local labs and universities “to provide an upper-level lab environment that offers access to things the high school students wouldn’t normally do.”

Both the high school and UMBC students learned quite a bit about how important it is to use equipment correctly and carefully, and to record results thoroughly and accurately. A technique like pipetting is fairly simple, but also essential, they learned, especially when working with expensive or rare chemicals.

As a result, “Practicing professionalism in the lab is something that I hope to teach my students,” Lockwood says. “And I definitely know from this experience that I have to first provide students with a technical foundation. How can they come up with a procedure if they don’t know the capabilities of each piece of equipment? And how can they carry it out if they don’t know how to use the equipment?”

If Lockwood is any example, “This program is developing better teachers for society,” Lu says, “which will have a positive impact on future students and STEM professionals.”

Hua Lu. Photo by Marlayna Demond ’11 for UMBC.

Lasting bonds

The experience in Lu’s lab was a win for everyone in the pilot program. “The high school students brought so much energy to the lab,” Lu says. “They showed a passion for biology, and you’d see those lightbulb moments.”

The relationships the pairs formed were also a meaningful part of the experience. “I still text with my partner from time to time,” Lockwood says. Building their relationship was “easy, natural, and fun,” he adds. One of the reasons Lockwood wants to teach is to mentor students who may be struggling to find their way, so “being able to establish that relationship with Youssef was very affirming. And I look forward to being a mentor to many more students in the future.”

That’s exactly what Lu hopes students get out of the program: an understanding of not just how to do lab research, but also of how important relationships are to learning and discovery in science. 

As Reed begins her UMBC career, she’s excited to extend the relationships she’s already formed at UMBC and to create new ones. “It meant a lot to me to be part of this, because I still got to stay where I felt at home—because I consider UMBC a home away from home—but I also got to make new family with the people I met,” Reed says. “Now I have a really large family and support system through UMBC, and I am so excited to see what I can do with all of them helping me grow.” 

Banner image: Summer program participants and other members of Hua Lu’s lab enjoy lunch together on campus in summer 2019. From left to right: Ben Lockwood ’20; Malaysia McGinnis ’20; Min Gao, postdocotoral fellow; Hua Lu; Cora Bainum, Baltimore City College High School; Jessica Allison, Ph.D. student; Allen Stallings, Baltimore City College High School; Shaojie Chen ’21; Kimani Reed, Cristo Rey Jesuit High School; Riki Egoshi ’20 (front); Youssef Maroud, Baltimore City College High School. Photo courtesy Hua Lu.