Effective training components of an educational pipeline to train the next generations of ecologists include recruitment from populations underrepresented in the field of ecology, incorporation of interdisciplinary course work, and effective mentoring at all academic levels (high school, undergraduate, and graduate). Funded by a NSF Advancing Informal STEM Learning grant, Fordham University and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) applied these elements to create and implement Project TRUE (Teens Researching Urban Ecology) to test if Project TRUE increases the rate at which students underrepresented in STEM careers pursue STEM degrees and careers. Each year, Project TRUE provides 50 high school students from this population with an extensive summer field research experience. During this program, students conduct research on an original question in the field of urban ecology under the guidance of an Undergraduate Research Mentor. To evaluate the effect of Project TRUE on high school student career pathways, mentors self-report attitudes and activities through weekly tracking logs and interviews. Post Project TRUE, and each year for the duration of the grant (2019), high school students complete a survey to track their college and career pathway and to estimate if Project TRUE had a lasting effect.
Preliminary results indicate that 33% of participants reported Project-TRUE related change in their academic or career intentions. By focusing on urban areas, where populations underrepresented in STEM are generally denser, research projects may be more relevant and interesting to this population. Moreover, by implementing Project TRUE in the context of an urban ecosystem, interdisciplinary concepts embedded within the field of Urban Ecology are central to the students’ research questions. At the core of Project TRUE is a tiered-mentorship model, in which the high school students work under the guidance of an Undergraduate Research Mentor. Prior to mentoring the high school students, each Undergraduate Research Mentor receives 150 hours of training in research methods, field ecology methods, educational pedagogy, and mentorship. The Undergraduate Research Mentors are, in turn, mentored by Conservation Educators (WCS) and Ecology PhD students (Fordham). Finally, faculty and professional support staff mentor the Conservation Educators and PhD students. The findings of this research may help create a model for an educational pipeline to train the next generation of ecologists, an essential component of the ESA’s Earth Stewardship Initiative.