With what seemed almost surgical precision, Navi Esparza and Kaitlin Tea removed the digestive tract from the salmon carcass on the table before them.
Across from the 13-year-olds, Semaj Floyd sang, “I Will Survive” to himself to keep from getting squeamish while performing the same task.
The students were three of 57 in the University of Puget Sound’s Summer Academic Challenge. It is part of UPS’s Access Programs, which provide activities and events to promote learning in science and math and increase minority representation in higher education.
The 23-year-old summer program partners with Tacoma Public Schools to provide science- and math-based classes to local students in grades seven to 12.
Esparza, Tea, Floyd and 15 other students are in the class for seventh- and eighth-graders studying “The Life Cycles of Salmon.” The fishy activity was part of an anatomy lesson. Over the course of the 20-day class, the students learn about different parts of a salmon’s life cycle, and how humans affect it.
“In regular school, we do homework, correct it, do more homework, correct it, and do that over and over again,” said Esparza, who applied this year after hearing about how much fun his twin brother, Adan, had the previous year. “We rarely ever do these kinds of activities at school.”
Alejandra Rios, the instructor, agreed the summer program is very different from regular school.
“Their retention is much more than I anticipated,” said Rios, a math teacher from the Highline School District. “I have no behavior problems with any kids, because they all want to be here.”
Rios also has the help of three teaching assistants to ensure that the student-to-instructor ratio is low. The teachers, assistants and students all apply to be in the program.
Paid for by local businesses, the classes are free to students.
“This is an investment for the students, but it’s an investment for the community as well,” said Abigail Taitano, Access Programs coordinator. “We instill in the students that if college is where you see your future, there’s definitely a path for you; it’s just going to take hard work.”
Taitano also said the students served by the program vary from those who are confident in their science and math skills to those who want to improve before the next school year.
According to Access Programs, 93 percent of students in the summer program will graduate on time. The current on-time graduation rate in the Tacoma School District is 67 percent. Also, 86 percent of students who completed the program are enrolled in higher education; the nationwide average is 41 percent, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
“We understand that project-based learning is a way to capture the excitement of the students,” said Taitano, who emphasized the importance of science and math education specifically. “We’re really looking for student engagement.”
Engagement in these subjects is considered an important part of Washington’s future.
A 2011 U.S. Chamber of Commerce measurement reported that Washington state had the greatest concentration of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) jobs in the country. Still, Washington STEM, a statewide nonprofit that advocates for the advancement of STEM education, reported in February that 30,000 jobs will go unfulfilled in the next five years because of “a lack in qualified candidates.”
“In the next 10 years, almost all of the fastest-growing jobs will require STEM skills, but 61 percent of middle-schoolers would rather take out the garbage than do their math homework,” said Patrick D’Amelio, CEO of Washington STEM. “STEM programs are critical to inspire the next generation in STEM and support Washington’s continued economic success.”
For the students dissecting salmon, it’s too soon to tell whether they’ll be the next generation of computer scientists and mathematicians.
But many did say they wanted to go to college email@example.com