The United States is facing a serious shortage of young people pursuing careers in science and technology. Over the past several decades government officials have become alarmed by this disturbing trend, and have set out to remedy it.
In 1993, NASA positioned itself as a leader in this effort by developing the Science, Engineering, Mathematics, and Aerospace Academy (SEMAA) based in Cleveland, Ohio. It has since built over 17 additional sites across the country, based on the initial model, at community colleges and public schools in low-income neighborhoods. The program harnesses the collective resources of NASA, institutions of higher education, science centers, museums, and grade schools to bridge the education gap for historically underserved and underrepresented youth in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (frequently referred to as STEM).
SEMAA programming is offered to students either during an academic year session (typically eight weeks) or a summer session (typically one week); in addition, weekend and summer classes are available free of charge. Students who participate in the entire series of sessions from kindergarten to 12th grade will have completed 441 hours of advanced studies in STEM disciplines before finishing their secondary education.
The curriculum consists of three main components: a hands-on pedagogical approach, a state-of-the-art Aerospace Education Laboratory (AEL), and an innovative Family Café. The AEL is a computer classroom that engages students with educational challenges related to aeronautics and space exploration, using real aerospace hardware and software, including a laboratory-grade wind tunnel, GPS equipment, and an Advanced Flight Simulator (AFS). The Family Café promotes sustained family involvement by providing adult caregivers with relevant resources to promote STEM learning at home in order to maximize student exposure, interest, and success in scientific learning.
The program has a well-established track record of attracting and retaining its target audience. In 2006, SEMAA involved 140,000 students, teachers, and family members; 85 percent of SEMAA students were ethnic minorities, 43 percent lived below the national poverty level, and 49 percent were female. In 2006, when students rated their affinity with STEM fields before and after their participation in SEMAA, 38 percent indicated a higher interest in science-39 percent in technology, 52 percent in engineering, and 39 percent in mathematics. Many parents report that their children carry their interest in science and technology outside of the classroom, and that whole families benefited from increased access to information on college options and scientific careers.