Agriculture News

March 22, 2017

Purdue researchers awarded $1.1 million to develop STEM project for underrepresented students in Indianapolis

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – The National Science Foundation has awarded Purdue University professor Levon Esters and his research team a $1.1 million, two-year grant to help underrepresented students learn about science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

As part of the project, students of William Penn Elementary School, which is in the Indianapolis Public Schools District, will work on solving three real-world problems in their community. They will focus on the areas of food, health and the environment. While applying engineering principles to solve each problem, the students will be immersed in integrated STEM studies, such as agricultural life science, physical science, engineering, computational science and mathematics. The project also includes professional development sessions to help teachers increase their confidence and competence in teaching these subjects.

Approximately 300 students in fourth through seventh grades will participate in the project.

“Our overall goal is to increase the number of underrepresented minority middle school students who are prepared for advanced secondary courses, as well as to major in STEM disciplines in college,” said Esters, an associate professor in the department of Youth Development and Agricultural Education (YDAE) at Purdue. “As students apply principles from agricultural life sciences and other STEM disciplines in the context of their community, their motivation and self-efficacy will increase.”

The project idea grew from research showing that the early experiences of underrepresented students, including females and ethnic minorities, can have a significant impact on their decision to pursue careers in science, math and engineering. Students who are underexposed to STEM topics or who have negative experiences with STEM in their early developmental years have less confidence in their abilities and are less likely to pursue careers in these areas. Additionally, students’ exposure to science and math during elementary and high school can affect their overall intellectual development, career trajectory and ability to participate in their communities.

“We are very excited to increase the level of engagement through STEM and agricultural sciences for students,” said Corye Franklin, principal of William Penn Elementary. “This partnership will create lifelong experiences for our children.”

By helping the students explore science and mathematics in the context of their daily lives, the researchers hope to build their confidence and encourage interest in STEM careers.

“Agricultural life sciences are interdisciplinary areas that have largely been underexplored as a culturally relevant context for underrepresented minority students in K-12 settings,” said Esters. “But agriculture and other life sciences have to feed and provide energy for more than 9 billion people by 2050. This problem is relevant across local communities, across cultures, and addresses global challenges of food security and environmental sustainability.”

In addition to Indianapolis Public Schools, Esters’ team will collaborate with local and state organizations for the project’s development and implementation, including the city of Indianapolis, Dow AgroSciences, Purdue Extension and the Indiana Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (I-STEM) Resources Network.

Additional members of the team include co-investigators Heidi Diefes-Dux and Neil Knobloch, from the Purdue departments of engineering education and YDAE, respectively, as well as YDAE graduate students Quincy Clark and Dottie Vollmer.

For more information, contact Levon Esters at 765-494-8439 or           

Writer: Jessica Merzdorf, 765-494-7719,

Sources: Levon Esters, 765-494-8423,

Quincy Clark,

Contact: Shari Finnell, (765) 494-2722,

Agricultural Communications: (765) 494-8415;
Shari Finnell, Manager/Media Relations and Public Information,  
Agriculture News Page

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