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Winship program uses community case studies to engage middle schoolers in STEM to reduce health and workforce disparities
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Jenny Owen
Middle school students in STEM classroom environment.

Supported by a $1.34 million NIH grant, Winship researchers will study whether problem-based learning, using case studies relevant to the students' own communities in Georgia, will help to reduce health and biomedical research workforce disparities.

Cancer disproportionately impacts Georgia’s communities of color and those from rural and lower socioeconomic backgrounds. These same population groups are also significantly underrepresented in the U.S. biomedical research and health care workforce, which contributes to and exacerbates cancer health disparities.

Supported by a new five-year, $1.34 million Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA) from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) and the Office of Data Science Strategy (ODSS) at the NIH, Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University scientists will investigate whether problem-based learning, directly applied to case studies relevant to the students’ own communities in Georgia, will more effectively help to increase diversity in the biomedical research workforce and reduce health disparities. The program, called Data Detectives: Using Real Data to Solve Real Community Health Problems, will focus on students (primarily girls, those from racial/ethnic minority communities and those from lower socioeconomic status families) at Title I middle schools in both metro Atlanta and in rural areas in Georgia.

The Data Detectives research program is led by Theresa W. Gillespie, PhD, associate director for community outreach and engagement at the Winship Cancer Institute, and Winship’s deputy director, Adam Marcus, PhD.

“Our hypothesis,” says Gillespie of the Data Detectives research program, “is that by making science and health-related data applicable to real problems that affect communities where they live, students who might otherwise drop out of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) studies early in their academic lives will find STEM subjects more relevant and engaging.”

These concepts support the importance of the community engaging in scientific endeavors, referred to as “citizen science.”

The Data Detectives program will be delivered as an after-school informal science education program each semester and as a concentrated program on campus each summer. Underrepresented students will have the opportunity to engage with Emory undergraduate students, who serve as role models and near-peer mentors. The middle school students will gain experience in conducting research, data analysis, building networks and learning about college life, applications and financial aid.

Ultimately, the program will diversify the pipeline for the future biomedical and oncology workforce, which will directly benefit research and patient care in Georgia and help to reduce health and cancer disparities. Students will be followed long-term to evaluate their involvement in future STEM studies in high school and higher education.

Marcus notes, “The lessons learned from this program will allow for wider dissemination so other programs and groups can replicate it in their own communities.”

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