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  • Pima County program paves path to STEM careers

    Valeria Castro, a 17-year-old at Amphitheather High School, wants to become a pediatrician specializing in cardiology. Juan Fierros, 17, of Pueblo High, wants to become a neurosurgeon or a psychiatrist. And 18-year-old Santi Groat, a recent graduate from Ironwood Ridge, hopes to one day become a medical examiner.
     Steps 2 STEM
    Some of the students who took part in this year's Steps 2 STEM program were: (front row from left) Svenja Rossfeldt, Juan Fierros, Logan Eagle and Valeria Castro; (back row from left) Valeria Samaron, Marisol Figueroa, Maya Rose and Santi Groat.

    Where do these young adults find the confidence and ambition to pursue such careers? Well, they and their parents probably deserve most of the credit. However, Pima County has played a small part in their plans by helping to send them to the Steps 2 STEM program at the University of Arizona.

    “I’ve found the program to be amazing,” said Castro, a senior-to-be at Amphi who spent four weeks doing DNA extractions in a laboratory. “I think it’s amazing that as a high school student without any certifications I’m able to work in a lab and have this experience.

    “Before this program, I never really wanted to be a researcher. I never had that much interest in it. When I heard about this program, I thought, ‘Well, I’ll just go into it and see what I think.’

    “It has definitely exceeded my expectations. I’ve learned and discovered things that I didn’t even know existed.”

    Steps 2 STEM is a collaboration among Pima County, the university and Pima JTED, a public career and technical education district that works with 14 member public school districts to prepare Tucson-area high schoolers for the workforce. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math and is commonly used as a shorthand reference to careers in those fields.

    For three of the five years that Steps 2 STEM has been running, Pima County’s Youth Employment Center has paid for most of the students’ costs to attend the program. The program’s tuition this summer was $1,600 per student, with the Youth Center paying $1,300 and the Phoenix-based Center for the Future of Arizona paying the remaining $300. Seventeen students completed the Steps 2 STEM program this year.

    Benjamin Richmond, associate director of community engagement with the UA’s Southwest Environmental Health Sciences Center, where the Steps 2 STEM program is based, said the overall goal of the program is to expose students to careers they never considered and to make them comfortable in an academic environment.

    “I think what this program does is provide a chance for the students to be successful on a large university campus,” Richmond said. “It’s super helpful because the UA — and any large university — is extremely daunting. It’s a city within itself. If you’re new to a university, you can get lost very easily.

    “This program helps students network. A lot of the students get offered positions to continue working in the labs when they become freshmen at the UA. It builds those relationships and gives them the confidence and self-efficacy that they are able to do this.”

    The Steps 2 STEM students spent four weeks working in research laboratories in and around the university with professionals in STEM-related fields. By the end of the program, they also earned three units of college credit as well as university certifications in the handling of bloodborne pathogens and lab and chemical safety.

    Groat, the Ironwood Ridge High graduate, spent her time in the program studying phthalates and their potential negative impacts on human health. Phthalates are chemicals used to make plastics more durable.

    “I really didn’t know what phthalates were,” Groat said, “but through them I have learned how science and the medical fields can be combined.

    “This program has shown me that research is a possible field I can go into. I’m getting a lot of professional experience out of this program.”

    Groat plans to attend Western Oregon University in Monmouth during the fall semester.

    Fierros, who will be a senior at Pueblo High School this fall, said he enjoyed the program because it allowed him to do meaningful work while also learning valuable skills.

    “I’d be honored to do this program again,” Fierros said. “Aside from it being awesome, this program is very hands-on. You also get college credit and they give you a stipend for the work that you do. When you’re in a lab, you’re basically employed.”

    Daphanie Conner, the youth program manager at Pima County’s Youth Employment Center, said the 17 students who participated in Steps 2 STEM were a tiny part of the County’s Summer Youth Employment Program. In all, the Youth Center provided 1,700 young people with paid work experience this summer, she said.

    “Pima County’s role in Steps 2 STEM is mostly to pay the tuition,” Conner said, “but if it weren’t for Pima County probably none of these kids would be in this camp. A lot of these families don’t have $1,300 lying around for something like this.

    “I understand that all of the students passed with A’s and got all the credits. It was awesome.”

    Conner emphasized that the Youth Center’s involvement with the Steps 2 STEM students isn’t over. The center will stay in contact with the students and help, if needed, to make sure they stay on the path toward a college degree.

    “It’s not a one-and-done deal. We’re committed to helping the young people at the next level,” Conner said. “If they’re financially eligible, we can assist them with additional funding for college. Or maybe we can provide some support services, like paying for books or exam fees. Or maybe they just need a part-time job, and we would be able to assist them with that as well.

    “Basically, they’re stuck with us,” Conner added with a laugh. “Once they get involved with us and get into our programs, we want to see them through to the end.” 
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