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USFSP launches STEM program for underrepresented students

Mark Parker



The fountain at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg campus. Photo by Mark Parker.

The University of South Florida St. Petersburg is the first institution in the state to establish a science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) program that creates opportunities for underrepresented students.

Launched in 1969 as a pre-college intervention and solutions program in California, over 49,000 students from more than 350 school districts across the nation have now participated in the Mathematics, Engineering Science Achievement (MESA) Schools Program. However, according to a school release, USFSP is just the third institution in the eastern U.S. to feature the program.

A $75,000 grant recently provided by Duke Energy will aid in establishing partnerships with local schools, developing curriculum, establishing STEM-focused clubs and recruiting female and minority students throughout Pinellas County.

“In general, education is the pathway out of a whole series of problems associated with being in a low-income community,” said Dr. Anthony Rolle, dean of the College of Education. “Education is by far and away the most available and potentially prosperous pathway that exists.”

Anthony Role, dean of the College of Education, participated in the MESA program as a high school student. Photo provided.

Those well-versed in science, technology and math, added Rolle, typically go on to work in a related field and enjoy economic advantages over their counterparts. In addition to increased earning potential, he said STEM education often provides a better understanding of self-health and how to participate in a democratic society.

Rolle is intimately familiar with the MESA program, as he credits it for stoking his interest in the math and science fields as a high school student.

After his father passed away when Rolle was a child, he said, he was fortunate to be raised by a mother who valued education. While unable to provide many of the material things afforded to kids from wealthier families, she could instill the value of learning and performing well in school to her children.

When she realized what the MESA could offer her son, Rolle’s mother reached out to his school counselor, who helped him enroll in the program.

“Without that pivotal moment in my education, I don’t know where I might have been,” said Rolle. “Based on my environment, I would have gone on somewhere, but I don’t know if I would have had the opportunities that were made available through the MESA program.”

Rolle and David Rosengrant, interim director of education and a professor of STEM education on the St. Pete campus, lead the USFSP chapter. They will re-engage with school superintendents in September, said Rolle, to develop a long-term structure for the initiative.

The St. Petersburg-based Innovation Foundation (IF), founded by ARK Invest’s Cathie Wood, is also launching a pilot program this fall that brings STEM education to area sixth-graders.

In June, Carrie Amos, managing director for IF, told the Catalyst her organization considers Rosengrant and Rolle partners and credited them for their willingness to collaborate.

“It takes a village,” said Amos. “And USF coming together with Pinellas County is the beginning of a village.”

After initially directing the MESA programming at local middle schools, the plan is to expand it to all grades throughout the six-county region, explained Rolle. The goal is to attract underrepresented populations to career opportunities in STEM industries through enrichment activities, mentorship programs and career shadowing.

“A long time ago, I told myself that if I ever was in a position to start a MESA program and provide those types of opportunities for Black and Latino kids, for low-income kids and for women, that I would do my best to begin those programs,” said Rolle.

While USF plans to expand the chapter to include the Tampa and Sarasota-Manatee campuses, Rolle said the initiative’s leaders envision St. Pete as MESA’s development and innovation hub.

The campus expects to open applications for admission next year, and Rolle said he hopes to have the program up and running by the fall of 2023.

Rolle called providing additional pathways for student success a primary responsibility for public schools, who then pass the torch to post-secondary institutions to prepare them for careers. The MESA program will encompass both.

A key aspect of the initiative, said Rolle, is taking participants on field trips to STEM-related local businesses. Once the program matures, he said the goal is to expand those initial field trip-based relationships into a paid internship structure.

“Those are the things that we’ll be working on over the next year,” said Rolle. “And the years beyond.”


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