Jill Hoffman, PhD

Getting young people excited about STEM

Amid the continuing national urgency to engage more young people in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education and careers, the UCLA Vatche and Tamar Manoukian Division of Digestive Diseases is providing underprivileged high school students with hands-on experiences and mentorship in STEM activities on the UCLA campus.

The program, called STEM at UCLA, enrolls approximately 35 students a year for a series of four full-day Saturday sessions in which they tour labs; interact with STEM students, faculty and other professionals at UCLA; participate in laboratory experiments and activities; and learn about STEM fields and career paths. At the end of the program, the students receive a certificate of completion and contact information for key staff to allow them to follow up.

The students are selected through a competitive application process from among the scholars of the Fulfillment Fund, the nonprofit college access organization founded by Dr. Gary Gitnick, co-chief of the division. “These students typically have had minimal exposure to STEM fields — they have expressed an interest in the subject matter, but they don’t know what to do with that interest,” explains program director Jill Hoffman, PhD, an adjunct assistant professor in the UCLA Center for Inflammatory Bowel Diseases, based in the division. “Our goal is to expose them to STEM activities and the opportunities that are out there for them.”

For their hands-on experiences in Dr. Hoffman’s laboratory, the students don protective gear and perform experiments. They hear from Dr. Hoffman and members of her lab, as well as other members of the division. The program also brings in partners from elsewhere on the UCLA campus, and outside of UCLA. “We want the students to have a breadth of experiences,” Dr. Hoffman says.

At the beginning of STEM at UCLA, the participants are surveyed about their interests. When members of this year’s group indicated an interest in aerospace engineering, the program partnered with the Rocket Project at UCLA, a student-run engineering outreach organization dedicated to inspiring youth and promoting STEM; this fall, students will learn about and participate in the launching of a rocket on the UCLA Intramural Field. STEM at UCLA has also forged a partnership with CityLab, a science educational program run by UCLA undergraduate and graduate students to introduce high school students to biotechnology fields through hands-on experiences.

The STEM at UCLA participants also brainstorm about STEM careers. “From the first session to the last session it’s amazing to see how these students’ concept of what they can do in STEM expands based on the exposure we give them,” Dr. Hoffman says.

As he nears completion of this year’s program, Daniel Flores, a senior at New Designs Charter School in Los Angeles, is pondering a future as a bio-medical engineer. “Our world depends on STEM,” he says. “To be able to take this step as a teen, consulting with STEM professionals and engaging in hands-on tasks, has been inspiring.”