Summer program inspires Black high school students to pursue a future in STEM

A group of people in lab coats smiling at the camera

The Mac-ISTEP Summer Immersive Experience participants and program coordinators with MAC-ISTEP co-leads Juliet Daniel and Shaiya Robinson.

A group of Black high school students from Hamilton and Halton area got a taste of university life this summer, thanks to a hands-on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) enrichment and leadership program held at McMaster.  

The student participants in Mac-ISTEP: McMaster Black Youth IMHOTEP STEM Enrichment Program (STEP) say the experience has left them better able to envision themselves as university students, and as career professionals in STEM-related fields.  

“It definitely helps to see the future more and it’s helping clear up some of the confusion around what I should do,” says Kammyia JahNova, who is going into grade 11 at Craig Kielburger Secondary School in Milton, ON. “It’s fun and really exciting.” 

The students got to participate in an after-school STEM club as part of the first phase of the program in the 2023 Winter term. They then lived on campus for a week in July, taking part in fun and educational activities, that included visiting the Black Student Success Centre, conducting experiments in labs and learning about the contributions Black researchers have made to science.  

“We learned how to code at Venture Academy, we did a scavenger hunt to get familiar with the campus, and we’ve learned how to use the dorms. So, they’re really preparing us for our future and for university,” says Joseph Agyapong, who is going into grade 12 at Milton District High School.  

Three photos in a grid showing students working on iPads and smiling
The students put their block-coding skills to the test, navigating through an obstacle course at the Faculty of Engineering’s Venture Academy, which offers hands-on STEM experiences for children and youth from kindergarten through grade 12. (Photos by Georgia Kirkos/McMaster University).

The program, a joint outreach initiative of the Faculties of Science and Engineering, was designed by Professor Juliet Daniel (Biology), Assistant Professor Shaiya Robinson (School of Interdisciplinary Science), and Lindsay Bolan and Leah Rosenthal (Engineering) to foster a greater sense of belonging and inclusion in STEM for Black youth.  

“For many Black students, they do not see themselves represented in STEM and, through streaming in high school, have been actively dissuaded from academic paths leading to STEM,” says Shaiya Robinson.

By having students interact with Black scientists at various levels (undergraduate, graduate, and professoriate), we hope that Mac-ISTEP will foster a greater sense of community and belonging in STEM for these students.” 

Mac-ISTEP received funding as part of the Strategic Excellence and Equity in Recruitment and Retention (STEER/R) Program, which makes seed funding available for transformative initiatives that benefit equity-deserving groups at McMaster. 

A professor and three students wearing lab coats conducting an experiement and working with a microscope
Students are mentored by Black STEM undergraduate and graduate students, faculty and staff. Here, Mac-ISTEP co-lead and co-organizer Shaiya Robinson, an Assistant Professor in the School of Interdisciplinary Science, explains how to measure heartrate to students conducting a physiology experiment. (Photo by Georgia Kirkos/McMaster University).

“Black students comprise ~ five per cent of the student body in the Faculty of Science and Faculty of Engineering,” explains Lindsay Bolan, Director of Outreach & Engagement in the Faculty of Engineering.

“We are committed to changing this.” 

“We anticipate that the Mac-ISTEP program will play a pivotal role in demonstrating to prospective students that their viewpoints and contributions are valuable, fostering a sense of belonging in the STEM community under the guidance of dedicated faculty, and it is one of many barrier-free programs that we run throughout the calendar year.” 

Three photos in a grid showing students wearing white lab coats conducting an experiment and looking into microscopes
Students measure heartrate in response to coffee, alcohol, and sugar in the water flea, Daphnia magna during a physiology laboratory. (Photos by Georgia Kirkos/McMaster University).

For Sherwood Secondary School student Sara Teklemichael, coming to a university campus was a bit nerve-wracking at first.  

“I was pretty intimidated at how big campus was as a high school student, but now I’m very comfortable,” says the grade 12 student, who says she wants to one day work in tech and pursue her interests in robotics, coding and computers.  

“It does calm my nerves you know? Being with the grad students, with the mentors, professors, they calm it down a lot. So, university life isn’t as scary as I thought it would be.” 

Agyapong, who hopes to study mechanical or aerospace engineering at McMaster after he finishes his last year of high school, agrees.   

“When I first got here it was so big and very different from my high school. So, at first it was an adjustment,” says Agyapong. “But, through this iSTEP program, it has basically become second nature for me. It feels like where I belong.” 

A high school student bent over looking at a plant while a professor looks on
A Mac-ISTEP Summer Immersive Experience participant examines a plant inside the McMaster Biology Greenhouse as Professor Susan Dudley looks on (Photo courtesy Alina (Chenfei) Li/McMaster University).

Those behind the program say the summer immersive experience was a success and they are looking forward to seeing the positive change this cohort will make.

The value and importance of ‘paying it forward’ is built into the program’s structure, with some participants returning to help develop new activities, and serve as high school mentors/consultants for next year’s after-school STEM club.

It’s all in the hope of providing positive role models for more junior Black students considering STEM and fostering this important sense of belonging.

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