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Detroit Zoo Offers STEM-based Career Exploration Program to City's Underserved Youth

June 30, 2017

Participants in a Tomorrow’s Leaders Today workshop study plant species and use journaling to reflect on their experiences. Hands-on workshops are the foundation of the Detroit Zoological Society’s program that reinforces the importance of STEM-related career pathways in fifth to eighth grade students.

Project Snapshot

Grant Program Name: Museums for America
Grant Log Number: MA-04-12-0150-12
Year Awarded: 2012
Recipient: Detroit Zoological Society

“We wanted to make a difference in young peoples’ lives. We knew that it was important to expose them to careers in STEM-related fields, and that it was increasingly important that they feel confident as learners of STEM-related skills. Our teachers and facilitators take the responsibility of building confidence and excitement among our students seriously, and in turn, students are better able to learn the content and benefit from the program.” – Diane Miller, Chief Program Officer, Detroit Zoological Society

Science, engineering, technology, and math concepts, otherwise known as STEM, have become increasingly important to the U.S. economic future. In education circles, many advocates note that honing STEM-related inquiry skills in students is a must, and informal education curriculums have been taking note. In Detroit, Michigan, the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) recognized the importance of developing a connection between students and their families to STEM-related career pathways, especially for Detroit’s underserved populations. DZS’s Tomorrow’s Leaders Today is a three-year project funded in part by IMLS to engage underrepresented students with zoo-inspired science, technology, engineering and math workshops that ignite excitement in STEM-related careers.

Developing STEM Potential in Detroit’s Youth

During the University of Michigan College of Veterinary Medicine’s Vet-a-Visit Day, Tomorrow’s Leaders Today participants met with MSU students and professionals to discuss the field of veterinary medicine.

Tomorrow’s Leaders Today aims to make STEM-related career pathways accessible and appealing to students, giving them first-hand experiences through the lens of a zoological society. The three-year program engaged 75 fifth through eighth graders annually who participated in inquiry-based field work, classroom learning opportunities, behind-the-scene experiences at the Detroit Zoo and Belle Isle Nature Center, and other fieldtrips that illustrate the work, rewards, and challenges of STEM-based careers.

“We wanted to introduce STEM concepts and career pathways in a way that the students could see themselves actually having careers in these fields,” said Diane Miller, Chief Program Officer at DZS.

Fieldtrips to other community partners like the Michigan State University College of Veterinary Medicine expanded lessons beyond the zoo. Through MSU’s Vet-A-Visit Day, program participants met with veterinarians and veterinary students, and were introduced to the world of veterinary medicine.

DZS also partnered with Charter One bank to provide financial literacy workshops for families. Knowing the importance of involving parents in childhood learning, DZS sought to facilitate that involvement while also providing lessons that would benefit the parents. Through financial literacy workshops, parents learned how to plan for one of the biggest obstacles of higher education – financial need.

Growing Outside of Comfort Zones

Student group participates in a team activity during a Tomorrow’s Leaders Today workshop. Groups were often comprised of students from different schools so students could meet and work with new people, giving students more confidence in their ability to step outside their comfort zones both socially and academically.

Each year, a group of 75 students were selected by teachers and given the opportunity participate in the yearlong program. “It was important to make the program engaging so that students choose to participate for the entire year,” said Miller. “The program was structured to build interest, knowledge and understanding. This allowed students to study a topic they were interested in, learn more information about the topic and then use the information to solve a problem they found interesting. “

From the onset, the staff was very deliberate in the composition of student groups, seeking to create a program that pushed students outside of their comfort zones. Student groups were comprised of student representatives from different schools, lowering the chances of students knowing one another. This composition encouraged students to step outside their comfort zones, creating opportunities to build confidence in interacting with unfamiliar people, and in turn, more confidence in interacting with unfamiliar subject matters.

Providing tangible activities was paramount for Tomorrow’s Leaders Today. Exhibits, like the one above, allowed students to explore different STEM-related fields using all their senses.

Students were also taught to break barriers within their group by celebrating what makes their groups diverse and encouraging learning from their cohorts.

“We had one student in a group who was not a native English speaker and there was a definite language barrier between her and the other kids. But the teacher  provided her the support she needed to learn the material, and the other students rallied behind her and provided her support as well, understanding that just because she could not communicate like the rest of the group, did not mean she wasn’t intelligent,” said Sandy Ling, Education Specialist at DZS.

Successful Students, Successful Leaders

As the three year program came to an end in 2016, program results, studied by a third-party evaluator, demonstrated success in the program’s three impact categories: awareness, knowledge and understanding. Tomorrow’s Leaders Today introduced students to STEM-related career pathways, helped them solve problems by working in teams, and develop life skills. Moreover, the program’s retention rate consistently increased because students always knew that the program was about them and their success.

 “We were very deliberate in how we presenting the program to the students,” said Ling. “We were always transparent with the students and reinforced in everything we did that this program was about them and about supporting them. Overtime, the students got it, and kept coming back week after week.”

On the Horizon

Students work with one of DZS’s community partners to learn about sustainable living. Community partnerships were integral to the program’s success.

Recently DZS began formulating a replicable education model by taking what they had learned from the past three years to create a shareable, sustainable resource for other institutions.

Following the 2012 grant, DZS received a Sparks! Ignition Grant from IMLS in 2014 that allows DZS to help underrepresented students achieve success in STEM higher education through DZS’s “Learning Classroom – Community of Practice” project. The grant builds on the success of Tomorrow’s Leaders Today, by developing a community partnership to continue its commitment to engaging students of all ages in Detroit with STEM-based topics and explore, preparing them for higher education and career opportunities in later life.

In 2017, DZS was also a finalist for the 2017 National Medal for Museum and Library Service, the nation’s highest honor given to museums and libraries for service to the community. Finalists were selected based on programs such as Tomorrow’s Leaders Today that serve the community in innovative ways.

But for Miller, the real success is the change she sees in the students.

“It was inspiring to see groups of students think of college more concretely than they had in the past,” said Miller. “Now, not only are they thinking about college, and how they can pursue a college education, but they are also thinking about what their lives look like after their college degrees.”

About the Project

Grant Program Name: Museums for America
Grant Log Number: MA-04-12-0150-12
Year Awarded: 2012
Recipient: Detroit Zoological Society
Project Contact:
Diane Miller, Chief Program Officer

Museums for America