Enhancing Mentorship and Diversity in STEM: Duke’s Health and Environmental Scholars Program

March 22, 2024
Science Magazine

On a crisp Saturday morning, students from Durham Public High Schools gather around a wooden transect in the Duke Forest with bated breath. As one student lifts the board, flashes of red tails and yellow stripes dart under the dirt for cover. Another student quickly snaps photos of the scurrying geckos. After recording the diversity of wildlife seen under the transect, they trudge through fallen leaves to investigate the next one.

Every Saturday is different with the Health and Environmental Science Program (HESP), where Duke students design and implement lesson plans for high school students that are focused on health and environmental science. Launched in 2019, the program is part of an initiative to increase diversity for students in the STEM field through Bass Connections: Enhancing Diversity in STEM Careers Through Mentored Training. The program includes a combination of hands-on programming with local institutions and researchers, small-group mentorship, and preparation for the college application process. 

Above: Students gather in the Duke Forest to analyze the local herpetofauna nesting under wood and metal transects. Image courtesy of HESP.

Bass Connections members Nick Nease (Trinity ’26), Ariane Lemaire (Trinity ’26), and Mentor William Yan (Trinity ’26) reflected on their experiences with HESP in conversation with me. Nick and Ariane participated in the Bass Connections since Fall 2023, helping to design the curriculum, coordinate sessions, and serve as mentors for high school students. William and I joined HESP as mentors in Spring 2023 and have continued for the 2023-24 school year. 

JC: How did you go about designing the curriculum and lesson plans? Have they changed from those of the past teams?

AL: This year, the Bass Connections team chose to divide lesson plans into modules on biotech, conservation, and sustainability. We have arranged guest lectures and field trips for students to explore these fields of science. It was a priority for students to learn about specific careers and have opportunities to ask experts questions about their journeys. New this year is the implementation of a schematic outlining learning objectives and outcomes to tie all HESP experiences together, instead of simply hosting field trips that may appear unlinked to students.

Team members helped design lessons for each of the modules, emphasizing current advancements in the fields of environmental science and technology and considering potential solutions to various ecological problems. Then, they serve as mentors, guiding students through activities at locations such as the Duke Campus Farm, Duke Forest, and North Carolina Museum of Life and Science. On these trips, students have the opportunity to learn from experts in the field. 

NN: When planning the curriculum for one of the sustainability sessions, I thought it would be great for the students to learn about sustainable agriculture and its relation to environmental justice, so I planned a session at the Duke Farm. By working with the Duke Farm staff, Alma Solis (one of the graduate students on the HESP team), and Garrett Corwin (the founder of Piedmont Microgreens), I was able to plan a session in which students could learn about all of these topics and get hands-on experience with sustainable agricultural practices!

Above: Students spend the day learning about biodiesel at the Orange County Eco-Innovation Park. Image courtesy of HESP.

JC: Why did you join HESP?

WY: I joined HESP because I like tutoring students and sharing my passion for STEM subjects. The idea of taking students on field trips instead of traditional classes is creative and allows students to explore the real-world application of STEM subjects.

JC: What is your favorite memory so far?

AL: I had a blast at the butterfly house of the Museum of Life and Science! 

WY: My favorite memory is the trip to the Museum of Natural Sciences. It was fun seeing students playing with tarantulas and their appreciation of science and nature.

NN: If I had to pick one moment from the semester, I think mine was when I got to hold a tarantula at the Museum of Life and Science!

Above: Students tour the greenhouse of the Museum of Life Sciences. Image courtesy of HESP.

JC: What is the most rewarding part about HESP? 

NN: This sounds corny, but every part of HESP really is my favorite part. Our weekly team meetings with the faculty leads, graduate mentors, and undergraduate student mentors are always so energizing since we all are excited about the work we’re doing. There’s a great balance of having fun together while also nailing down all of the logistics that we need. The same thing is true for the Saturday morning sessions; it’s so refreshing to get off-campus and be a part of hands-on learning with the DPS students.

AL: The most rewarding part for me is seeing students’ passions evolve. Our team created the curriculum, spread the word to educators and schools, reviewed applications, and now get to see the cohort ask amazing questions and learn hands-on. I hope to work engaging communities in environmental science in the future, and it is so fulfilling to contribute to the skill development of motivated students in our community. 

Above: Students suit up as they tour the Duke Shared Materials Instrumentation Facility. Image courtesy of HESP.

Through these lessons, students can explore the intersection of environmental science, sustainability, and health, gaining experiences that aren’t typically offered in high school through activities and immersive field trips. This Bass Connections team hopes to teach students how to develop solutions to critical issues such as climate change and expose students to growing fields and opportunities in technology, business, and conservation.

Are you interested in HESP or looking for a new Saturday activity? Learn more here.

Jean Chung

Jean (Trinity '26) is a Biology major with a minor in Environmental Science from Long Island, New York. She is interested in the intersection between environmental health and human health and serves as a mentor for Duke's Health and Environmental Scholars Program. Outside of class, she loves to run, read, and consume peanut butter.

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