When a Successful Program Can’t Expand, It’s Time to Grow a Network

Monday, November 23, 2015

When a Successful Program Can’t Expand, It’s Time to Grow a Network

By Laurie Dien, Senior Program Officer, The Pinkerton Foundation

After a visit to the American Museum of Natural History’s Science Research Mentoring Program a few years ago, we knew we had seen something special: 50 high school students from underprivileged backgrounds working on authentic research projects under the one-one-one guidance of professional scientists. This life-transforming program simply had to grow. But when we asked the museum staff whether they could expand the program if the foundation offered more money, the answer was a disheartening: “No, We’re already at full capacity.” The idea could have died right there, but fortunately for all concerned, the deadlock triggered a conversation that yet again proved that necessity can be the mother of invention—even in philanthropy.

First came the questions: With so many science-based institutions in the five boroughs, why couldn’t the program be expanded to reach more high school students?  What were the key ingredients in the museum’s program that made it so successful? How could other institutions keep the critical elements and still tailor the program to their own particular strengths? And what kind of funding would be necessary to get these new programs off the ground?

With a grant from Pinkerton, the museum hired a highly-regarded consultant to begin working on the answers. She helped the museum staff to codify the Science Research Mentoring Program’s mentor and teacher training, the associated classroom curriculum and other critical elements. She surveyed the current landscape to see if there were other programs that had similar components, and then convened a series of planning meetings with colleagues at New York research institutions, university laboratories, environmental, technological and medical facilities--in short, any organization with a science focus and access to scientists who might be interested in launching the program.

The response from what we call the Science Research Mentoring Consortium was enthusiastic, but there were still significant hurdles to overcome. At each institution, esteemed scientists would have to be persuaded to open their labs to high school students and put them to work on real research projects, while providing an ongoing mentoring relationship. In addition, mentors and program staff would have to work together to help students prepare and deliver a required concluding presentation on their research to an audience of peers and professionals. From the museum’s model we knew that modest stipends for mentor training and some lab costs would help engage the scientists; and assistance with recruiting and screening the students would ease administrative burdens.  The museum model also demonstrated that providing at least 70 hours of coursework covering relevant scientific content and methodologies meant the students would be prepared to engage in the labs’ research where they were placed.

From the beginning Pinkerton pledged to provide two years of full funding for new programs and another two years of funding at a fifty percent level for those programs deemed successful. The foundation’s strategy was designed to insure sustainability but not dependence, and while Pinkerton was prepared to provide startup funds to other new programs, we knew that our colleagues in the philanthropic community would have to step in and provide ongoing support as well.  To earn Pinkerton grants, the programs would have to commit to providing the classroom, research and mentoring components. Equally important, they would have to seek out talented low-income students who wouldn’t normally have access to this kind of experience and offer modest stipends so that they wouldn’t have to choose between a part-time job and this opportunity of a lifetime.

After months of planning, a consortium coordinator was hired and a request for proposals released.  Five institutions—in addition to the museum—were selected to join the new consortium.  (AMNH receives support for its program, the consortium coordinator and a research project on student outcomes.) The consortium members meet quarterly, and it is nothing short of inspiring to observe  representatives of the great institutions of our city sharing challenges, solutions and best practices – all in an effort to make the research mentoring experience the very best it can be for their students..

Now entering its third year, there are fifteen members of the consortium. Most started programs from scratch. Others tweaked existing programs to add required elements and/or expand the number of participants.  In addition to AMNH, participating sites include:  The Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai; the Zuckerman Mind-Brain Behavior Institute at Columbia University; the Earth Institute at Columbia; the CUNY Remote Sensing Earth System Institute; the NYU Tandon School of Engineering; the Rockaway Waterfront Alliance, Rockefeller University; DNA Learning Center of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory; Wave Hill and the City University of New York College Now Programs at Lehman, Brooklyn, City, York and Queens Colleges. 

Together, the consortium members now reach more than 300 high school students each year. By the end of the summer (2016) more than 700 students will have completed the experience. How pleased are we by the results?  In May, The Pinkerton Foundation board approved up to $10 million over the next five years to add new institutions and to continue fifty percent funding for the current consortium members. The initiative, now called The Pinkerton Science Scholars Program, aims to reach an additional 2,000 talented New York City high school students from disadvantaged neighborhoods by the year 2020. In addition to the recognition the individual programs provide, we look forward to presenting the candidates who successfully complete all the elements of the program with certificates designating them as Pinkerton Science Scholars. More important, we look forward to watching these talented, hard-working young men and women go on to success in college and rewarding careers.

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