Diversity is a key concept in the field of ecology and has cascading effects on community structure and ecosystem function. Similarly, increased demographic diversity within the field of ecology is thought to contribute positively to the productivity and objectivity of the scientific community. Despite continued efforts to recruit and retain underrepresented populations, demographic composition in the field of ecology remains skewed compared with the overall US population. While evidence indicates that discipline-specific mentoring and exposure to research at the undergraduate level can increase retention of underrepresented students in ecology, similar programs for pre-college students are not common and pose challenges such as accessibility and mentor capacity. To address these issues, pre-college ecological research programs could focus recruitment efforts on urban areas (where racial and ethnic diversity is generally high), include urban ecology field research to provide place-based experiences for participants, and utilize undergraduates as near-peer mentors. An NSF 5-year longitudinal study was used to evaluate short and medium-terms effects of this type of ecology research mentoring program on pre-college students. Pre, post, and yearly follow-up questionnaires addressing mentoring, research experiences, science interest, and career intentions were administered to students who had participated in Project TRUE (Teens Researching Urban Ecology).
Since 2015, two cohorts of pre-college (rising high school seniors) students have taken part in Project TRUE (2015: N = 44, 2016: N = 47). Immediately following Project TRUE (T1), the 2015 cohort indicated that Project TRUE had higher influence on their interests and decisions than all other items surveyed (e.g. school, family and religion, activities organized by self, etc.). While it is unsurprising that Project TRUE influence decreased slightly one year later (T2), on a 7-point Likert scale respondents (N = 29) indicated that the mean influence of Project TRUE on decisions was 5.5 and 90% of respondents expected their career would involve science “a lot” or “a great deal”. Moreover, respondents reported significantly higher awareness of science in their daily lives (T1 = 5.7, T2 = 6.0; t = 2.0, df = 28, p=.05). These results suggest that Project TRUE, an urban ecology field research mentoring program for pre-college students, may have sustained effects on participants’ perception of science as well as their career intentions.