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“But these programs, while they’re pretty prolific, they really don’t have any body or collective space to come together to share practices or collectively advocate for their students or their programs. So we saw a real gap.”

Jennifer Iriti, research scientist at the heart of the STEM Push Network, has supported the project’s evolution from the beginning. When Iriti and her colleagues were conducting work under a separate NSF INCLUDES Design and Development Launch Pilot at the University of Pittsburgh, they noticed that pre-college programs lacked a cohesive body to accurately represent their benefits for students.

Iriti is excited to be a part of “the first national collaborative space for pre-college STEM programs.” She stated that the goal of the program is to “ensure that students’ success within these pre-college STEM programs can be made visible and can carry more weight with college admissions so that we can reduce the racial and ethnic disparities in STEM undergrad enrollment, persistence and even degree attainment.” Their proposed idea won then an NSF INCLUDES Alliance to perform the work.

Iriti pointed out that when school admissions rely mainly on test scores, they pigeonhole student information, preventing admissions offices from seeing the full range of students’ abilities. Among these less-considered skills is a strong STEM identity, which can be a critical contributor to student persistence through STEM programs.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made admissions reform even more urgent. COVID-19 has forced colleges to revert to pass-fail models and high school seniors to wonder whether their admissions will be affected, making it an ideal time for the STEM Push Network to offer an alternative approach. “There’s this huge and sudden need to think about alternative approaches to evaluating students and considering their overall portfolio of competencies for admissions. It represents a real opportunity for pre-college STEM programs and the STEM PUSH Network to show the potential value that considering the voices of pre-college STEM program leaders and the students themselves about their experiences and pre-college STEM programs could have to support the admissions process.” Iriti and her team are working hard to adapt the flexible portions of the project to best fit the needs caused by COVID-19, such as convening a virtual COVID-19 forum for pre-college STEM programs, ecosystem partners, admissions partners and the STEM Learning Ecosystems Community of Practice.