“The sweet spot is that there’s a large pool of students who don’t have great resources and who may not look impressive on paper, but if given the opportunity and resources, I believe that they can do it.”

Dr. Daniel McIntosh

Dr. Daniel McIntosh, distinguished associate professor of astronomy and astrophysics at University of Missouri – Kansas City, has an abundance of free time and energy to devote to societal needs on top of his research and teaching load…. yeah, right.  Actually, Dr. McIntosh recognizes that there never will be enough time or energy, but there is always more social need.  For McIntosh, ignoring the societal needs will never be an option; he saw the facts regarding the severe underrepresentation of minority students seeking degrees in STEM (science, technology, engineering & math) and wanted to help be part of the solution.  He knew that with his restricted time, he had to maximize his impact without exhausting his resources by capitalizing on the things he was already doing well: including impactful interactive engagements in his introductory astronomy courses and mentoring undergraduate student researchers. Thus was born “A Bridge to the Stars” (ABttS), a scholarship-based high school-to-college pipeline program.

Dr. McIntosh saw that if he could recruit minority and low-income high school students into his introductory science classroom, he was sure he could have a meaningful impact.  Using funding allocated to UMKC from the NASA Space Grant, he envisioned a program, which removes barriers that may keep minority students from pursuing STEM.  ABttS covers the high school students’ books, tuition, and fees at UMKC for one of his course innovative introductory astronomy courses (ASTR 150 or 155), and provides a semester long bus pass to get to campus.  Covering student fees and transportation further opens a host of other UMKC recourses to the students including access to the library, computer centers, and recreation center.  To maximize the program’s impact and to ease the transition of his high school students into college-level classes, McIntosh saw the need to include currently enrolled UMKC students to serve as “near-peer” mentors. Mentors take the course alongside their high school mentees and help the students navigate the waters of a freshmen-level science course and college life together.  In previous years, Dr. McIntosh held weekly meetings to check in on the high school students, but realized this was turning into too much of a performance review. He wanted to serve as a resource to students rather than a boss. To make these meetings more impactful, and frankly more fun, this semester, McIntosh is implementing an ABttS version of “Astro Hour:” an open and informal round-table discussion forum he initiated in 2009 to create a community of UMKC students interested about astronomy.

McIntosh admits that recruiting and selecting high-school students is one of the largest challenges of A Bridge to the Stars.  At the beginning of the program, administrators at each school were required to help students fill out their paper-based application, but McIntosh has seen this is not the way to go; students were discouraged by the system or science teachers pressured bright but uninterested parties to apply. ABttS has now transitioned to an entirely online application process and has simplified the questions. Rather than judging a student’s ability to write an articulate essay, this new application focuses more on whether a student is responsible and interested in astronomy and science.  School administrators are still involved in the process by recommending students based on maturity and good attendance.  Each year, nomination slips are distributed to local teachers who then hand select students they believe may be interested, invested, and capable of completing the course.  Students are encouraged to know that their teacher thinks highly of them, and are more likely to overcome their hesitation to apply. 

Since its start in 2012, A Bridge to the Stars has been a successful program, and program alumni agree!  Through Facebook-based surveying, ABttS participants spoke favorably of the program.  The program’s students also perform on par with their college-age peers in Dr. McIntosh’s course. McIntosh is indeed achieving his goal of improving minority participation; out of 31 students, nearly ⅔ of ABttS students have been African American, ⅓ have been Hispanic and ⅔ of all students have been female. Also, McIntosh is proud that the majority of his Bridge to the Stars students who responded to the program follow-up are still pursuing a STEM career path.

Dr. Daniel McIntosh sees a bright future for ABttS.  He is proud that he found a system that works well for his field of study and for his environment; his Kansas City location can reach many urban students who have great potential.  McIntosh hopes to encourage other researchers to create programs like his across the nation, although he recognizes that the same model will not work for everyone.  McIntosh recommends that other professors identify the unique benefits and challenges in their field and location so they can modify their approach accordingly.  With the program in its fifth year, and after dozens of students, Dr. McIntosh has learned a lot of ways to make the program more impactful.  He notes that luck brought him a meaningful personal connection that helped launch A Bridge to the Stars in its first semester and says “my goal is to improve diversity in STEM and to share this model with other leaders in STEM.”  Daniel McIntosh would love to pay-it-forward by sharing his experience with other busy faculty with a like-minded commitment to addressing social challenges.

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