BASE Camp Revolutionizes STEM Education
As the country’s demand for STEM-educated (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) workers continues to rise at an unprecedented rate, a recent report by the U.S. Department of Commerce revealed that while women make up half of the total U.S. college-educated workforce, they represent a mere 29% of the science and engineering workforce.
In an effort to change these statistics and address STEM retention issues existing within the greater Fairfield community, Biology Chair and Professor Dr. Shelley Phelan, director of the School of Natural and Behavioral Sciences and Mathematics in the College of Arts and Sciences, developed an innovative program in the summer of 2007 entitled BASE Camp (Broadening Access to Science Education). The free, two-week residential science program is offered annually to 24 female high school students from Bridgeport, Conn., and engages them in faculty-mentored laboratory research and peer mentoring that encourages the pursuit of STEM careers. Approximately 80 – 90% of admitted campers are minority students who reside in economically disadvantaged communities that are highly underrepresented in STEM fields.
“Experiences like these are particularly important for students in urban areas, where underfunded science curricula and limited access to role models and mentors in STEM and health careers are common,” Dr. Phelan said. “What is particularly unique about our program is that it rests entirely on a female staff comprised of Fairfield University’s STEM faculty and undergraduate STEM majors that successfully fill that void.”
During the first week of BASE Camp, students are immersed in a hands-on scientific research experience in one of several disciplines (e.g. biology, chemistry, physics or engineering), and participate in a wide variety of research topics that range from the effects of cardiovascular exercise to the exploration of forensic scientific methods. During the second week of the program, campers are introduced to a variety of careers in science, technology and healthcare, as well as the academic paths required to obtain them. In addition to meeting with professionals from each field, students are linked with members of the University’s admission staff, who offer guidance on the college application process and provide information on financial aid opportunities.
Over the years, BASE Camp has become an educational staple at Fairfield University and has positively impacted the lives of more than 140 young women from underserved populations with limited STEM exposure or experience. In fact, nine former BASE campers are currently enrolled at Fairfield, seven of which are majoring in science and have received full tuition or need-based scholarships. A follow-up survey issued by the University recently found that 94% of respondents from the past four years had applied to, or planned to apply to college and 85% stated an interest in pursuing a STEM or healthcare related career. Anonymous feedback gathered by the survey also indicated a near 100% satisfaction rate at the completion of the program.
“BASE Camp gave me a newfound love and appreciation for science,” one student wrote. “I’m now the top student in my chemistry class with a grade of 98-percent!” Another student shared, “BASE Camp helped encourage me because I met other girls who wanted to pursue a career in medicine, so I realized if they could do it, I could do it too.”
Yet despite the program's documented success and academic praise, the future of Fairfield’s BASE Camp is somewhat uncertain. At an annual cost of $79,000, the cost per student is $3,300, a relatively high fee due to the program’s residential component and 4:3 faculty-to-student ratio. Because the camp is offered free of charge to students from economically disadvantaged communities in Bridgeport, the program relies on funding from multiple organizations to remain in operation. Since 2012, the camp has been supported by a five-year R25 grant from the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities, but as that funding period comes to a close, the University is seeking new opportunities to ensure the program’s sustainability.
“A significant limitation of the program is its cost and scope,” Dr. Phelan reiterated. “As a result, institutional efforts to obtain external funding and cost-share mechanisms are at the forefront of our efforts. We want to ensure we have the means to continue to offer a robust and meaningful experience that excites and informs young women about the process and promise of science.”
For more information on Fairfield University’s BASE Camp, visit www.fairfield.edu/basecamp.