Research

UK's START Program Offers High Schoolers STEM Education, Experience

three young women in school hallway
START Apprentices Lordina Mensah, Aliya Perrin and Jeanne Alexandre graduate from Lexington's STEAM Academy this weekend, and all plan to attend UK in the fall to study STEM-related fields.

LEXINGTON, Ky. (May 26, 2022) — The STEM Through Authentic Research and Training (START) program at the University of Kentucky is creating a unique pipeline to increase science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) literacy and promote STEM careers for traditionally underrepresented populations — people of color, individuals with disabilities, students from free or reduced lunch schools, first-generation college students and girls and women in STEM.

START represents a cross-campus partnership between the University of Kentucky (providing opportunities for STEM research), Fayette County Public Schools and the Academies of Lexington, the Kentucky-West Virginia Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP) program, and Space Tango, a Lexington-based STEM company. The START program is funded by a five-year, $1.3 million Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA) from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS), part of the National Institutes of Health.

Lordina Mensah, Aliya Perrin and Jeanne Alexandre are START apprentices graduating from STEAM Academy in Lexington this weekend.

Mensah came to Kentucky with her mother when she was young. Her younger years were spent in tutoring programs learning English and as she grew, so did her interest in STEM.  

“Growing up, my mother wanted me to be successful, but as a Ghanaian immigrant, she could support me but not lead me there,” said Mensah. “As a result, I had to help myself and seek help from others at an early age.”

Mensah applied to STEAM Academy because of her interest in STEM. While there, she took rigorous and accelerated coursework that allowed her to finish most high school credits in her first two years. As a high school junior in need of an internship credit, she met Luke Bradley, Ph.D., director of the START Program, and Chellgren endowed professor and acting chair of the Department of Neuroscience in the University of Kentucky College of Medicine. This was her first introduction to START, and she knew she wanted to be involved.

Jeanne Alexandre was exposed to START through her involvement in LSAMP, an organization focused on introducing and supporting minority students in STEM fields. She knew that START supported her interests because some of her peers participated in the program, many of them being women of color.

“Through START, I’ve witnessed firsthand the validity of the phrase, ‘ask and you shall receive,’” said Alexandre. “As I’ve grown more confident, I’ve learned if you don’t ask, you could miss out on a lot. If those you ask don’t have the answers, they might know someone who does.”

Mensah, Perrin, and Alexandre began START apprenticeships during their junior and senior years of high school, while also taking dual credit classes at UK and at Bluegrass Community and Technical College (BCTC). In March 2020, it was clear that COVID-19 would become an obstacle for the students. However, with the help of their START mentors and their personal communities, they were able to push through and graduate while gaining authentic learning experiences.

“I am proud to see our first START apprentices reach this milestone,” said Bradley. “Despite going through the program during the pandemic, each of them has developed and demonstrated the resilience to be successful for graduating and at the next step. Our apprentices had many options available to them for college, but they cited a strong sense of belonging to the University of Kentucky, which is a result of our many cross-campus and community partnerships.”

START mentors are assigned to apprentices to help them through the trials and triumphs of the program. These mentors are UK faculty, staff or students who have been trained to encourage their apprentices and enrich their experience. Together, apprentice/mentor pairs receive authentic lab and research experiences on campus and beyond, learning real-world practices and applications. Mentors give insight into the college experience, decision making, goal setting and available paths, while modeling academic resilience and success. Kathleen Salmeron, Ph.D., assistant professor of neuroscience, was the START mentor for Perrin and Alexandre in their last semester.

“They are exactly the type of students that UK strives to attract,” said Salmeron. “They are motivated, curious and positive and mentoring them has been such a privilege.”

Thanks to START, UK has attracted all three of these women to the UK Lewis Honors College. Lordina was a Neuroscience START apprentice hoping to study in the UK College of Engineering. Perrin and Alexandre were also Neuroscience START apprentices, with focuses in anatomy. While they have not finalized what their majors at UK will be, they are both interested in continuing to study STEM.

An important part of the program is for graduates to “pay it forward” to the next generation. All three will be continuing their involvement with STEM and the START Program working at the summer STEM Camps, a weeklong, summer day camp experience for elementary, middle and high school students led by Margaret Mohr-Schroeder, professor of STEM education and associate dean in the College of Education, and serving as near-peer mentors for future START Apprentices.

“As a first-generation college student, I want to become an engineer and STEM educator to introduce minority and underrepresented kids to STEM,” said Mensah. “I hope to make my mother, who raised me, proud and to give back to the community that made me.”

“The entire START Team looks forward to having them on campus next year and watching them continue to grow in their STEM disciplines,” said Bradley. “Their future is bright!”

For more information about the UK START Program, or how you can get involved, visit https://start.uky.edu.

This program was supported by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences of the National Institutes of Health under Award Number R25GM132961. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.

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