Student Mini Grant: EARTH-RISE, Recruiting Underrepresented High School Students to Earth Science Through In-Class Activities, Hands-On Demonstrations and Thorough Information Sessions

picture of student project leader Rebekah Stein

Photograph of Rebekah Stein, EARTH-RISE student project manager.


EARTH-RISE is a multidimensional project focusing on bridging the gap between high school and tertiary education in STEM, particularly earth sciences, and addressing the leaky pipeline for students in high schools that are under-funded and lack resources. The earth sciences are generally excluded from most high school curricula. Many earth science majors discovered the track upon entering college; most people are unaware it is a discipline throughout secondary school and beyond. In order to attract the attention of more students, it is important to strengthen earth science secondary (and primary) education. Additionally, two of the major components that promote retention through college and beyond is whether students identify as a member of the scientific community, and whether students have access to mentors they respect who are also enthusiastic. This project hopes to rectify both issues by introducing major topics in earth sciences in an accessible and exciting way (in the high-school classroom, in the laboratory, and in the field).

This program focuses on hands-on experiences (in-class, research and in field) for high school students to encourage retention in earth sciences. EARTH-RISE is designed to form a long-lasting relationship between Ypsilanti Community High School (and Ypsilanti public schools in general), Detroit public schools, and the University of Michigan Earth department. It focuses on encouraging high school students to engage in hands-on activities and research in Earth Sciences. The students at Ypsilanti Community High School received little science education in middle school and, lacking enthusiasm and encouragement from teachers during formative years, have ruled out pursuit of STEM in later years.


This project has three major components: a) in class hands-on geology and earth science activities (in Ypsilanti), b) summer research internship opportunities and c) field geology exposure. The portion of the project I am immediately working on is (a); my development of in-class hands-on geology and earth science activities is centralized around several pedagogical premises. Primarily, I seek to help students self-identify as scientists by leading activities that allow them to do biology, chemistry, and geology themselves. Secondarily, I have been focusing on inclusive activities that are approachable even lacking a middle school scientific background. Thirdly, I am looking for activities that will help high school students identify how earth sciences and geology connect to their own lives. The student Library Grant has provided me the funding to achieve part a, and develop a rapport with the Ypsilanti High School Earth Science teacher, his classes, and the chair of the Ypsilanti Community High School science department. While parts (b) and (c) are more selective, these in-class hands-on activities reach a broad audience of earth science students in all level classes at Ypsilanti Community High School (five classes of ~30 students, ~150 total students).

So far, I have gone out to Ypsilanti Community High School twice and led a suite of atmosphere-related activities, with several more activities planned between now and the end of the school year. Several other PhD students in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences have collaborated with me to design and implement activities of their own. The activities have included stations. For one activity, students used clay to mimic depositional environments of a lake. For another activity, students used nail polish to make slides of leaf cuticles so that they could look at leaf pores under a microscope. Yet another used blow-up globes to simulate Milankovitch cycling and the effects of the Earth’s position relative to the sun on climate. The graduate student-led demonstrations and activities are designed based on each individual leader’s research interests; therefore, these activities are thorough and well-developed.

Anticipated results

By design, the repeated nature of these activities will strengthen the relationship between the “Earth Science” junior classes at Ypsilanti Community High School, the Earth Science teacher, and the high school science department in general, and the University of Michigan Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences. University of Michigan provides an incredible resource to encourage tertiary education; the connection between the Michigan Earth department and these high school students will make these resources more readily accessible to Ypsilanti Community High School students. Long-term, I hope that the activities done in class encourages these students to continue to engage in science and pursue STEM as a viable option in terms of career and interest. While not every person in the Ypsilanti Earth Science classroom will be interested in earth sciences, at the very least I hope that students learn how interesting and exciting it is to do science, and how it is essentially possible from your own back yard. Though Michigan is lacking in rock exposures, there are so many aspects to earth sciences that are overlooked and under-represented in the classroom. This project will help to mitigate these gaps!

A grapefruit leaf impression, made using clear nail polish, tape and a simple glass slide. Students at Ypsilanti Community High School made this slide; leaf pores (stomata) used for gas exchange with the atmosphere were evident and easy to count on this impression.
A grapefruit leaf impression, made using clear nail polish, tape and a simple glass slide. Students at Ypsilanti Community High School made this slide; leaf pores (stomata) used for gas exchange with the atmosphere were evident and easy to count on this impression.

Fund allocation

I have used the Library Grant funds to purchase tools to design activities. Many of these tools are simple office supplies or things one can find in their house; the hopes in these activity designs is that they are approachable and easy to recreate in an inexpensive way. Some examples include straws, clay, plastic cups, PVC pipe, tape, clear nail polish. The hope is that even after this academic year when these students move on and after several years from now, when I complete my dissertation, the relationship between Ypsilanti Community High School and the UM Earth Department will be lithified and the tools necessary for hands-on activities to promote immersive learning will be readily accessible.

Next Steps and Library Mentor Support

The next steps for this project include pursuing national-scale and university-backed funding to set up the summer internship and field camp component of this project, which are expensive and require many logistical set-ups. The University of Michigan library mentors I am working with have been extremely helpful introducing me to resources to find education (particularly K-12 education) grants and connecting me with specialists in outreach grant applications. They have also introduced me to a number of scholarly databases to get more information on the best way to design activities in an inclusive way and to focus on inclusive teaching in general.