Middle school students in northwest Louisiana have been invited to spend part of their summers on a college campus learning about science, technology, engineering, and math, or STEM subjects, for the past 25 years.
Of course, when LaPREP began in 1991 at Louisiana State University in Shreveport, no one was using that term.
“We were doing STEM before STEM became STEM,” said Carlos Spaht, LaPREP’s founder and director.
In addition to guiding the program, Spaht is also a professor of mathematics at LSU Shreveport.
Students must be nominated by their math teachers, and they’re required to submit grades as well as standardized test scores. Rising 7th and 8th graders in the parishes surrounding the university are eligible to apply for the free, two-year enrichment program.
“The goal of the program is to motivate the participants and to educate them to go to college,” said Spaht. “That’s the number one goal. Then the second goal is for them to major in math or science.”
On average, about 45 percent of the participants would be the first in their families to go to college. Seventy percent of them come from low- to lower-middle-income families, and 80 percent of them are minorities. Girls also have a slight edge in the program. They make up 60 percent of the participants.
LSU Shreveport professors and high school math teachers lead the LaPREP courses, which are designed to push the students.
“Some of these kids come here and they’ve never been in an academic environment where they were challenged,” said Spaht. “They actually go to new heights in their academic endeavors, particularly the ones that haven’t been challenged, and it’s been very successful.”
Since the program began, more than 700 students have completed it and gone on to college with 80 percent of them majoring in math or science.
The program runs for seven weeks, and students are on campus Monday through Friday for nearly seven hours a day. During this time, the students take classes and do lab work. They’re also expected to complete research projects. Students take tests and have final exams. And they have to maintain a 70 average to remain in the program.
But LaPREP isn’t all hard work. The students also spend time swimming and playing sports such as basketball, and they go on STEM-related field trips and hear presentations from guest speakers who work in these areas.
“So they can see what it’s like to be a doctor, to be a mathematician, or be a physicist, or be a chemist, or be a biologist,” said Spaht. “None of them have ever experienced that.”
Over the program’s 25-year run, Spaht has seen several changes in the way these subjects are taught and in the students themselves.
“STEM now has become more interdisciplinary and more of an applied approach,” said Spaht. “The way it used to be it was kind of disjointed.”
The changes are reflected in the program. Students study epidemiology, which allows them to combine biology with probability and statistics. They also study robotics, which combines computer science and engineering.
And while Spaht calls most of the LaPREP students “outstanding,” he said overall students seem less prepared today than they were when the program began.
“There seems to be a little fall off in the preparation of the kids that are coming to us from 6th and 7th grade,” said Spaht. “STEM is more hands-on and applications, and that’s great, but sometimes there seems to be a lack of ‘minds on.’ In other words, they do it but they don’t quite understand the math behind it or the physics behind it like I think they should. We try to incorporate that into our curriculum here.”
In recent years, LaPREP has spun off programs for 4th and 5th graders as well as programs for high school students. So conceivably, a student could start with math and science enrichment courses at LSU Shreveport at 10 or 11, and finish a medical school research opportunity as an 18-year-old high school senior.
Spaht sees having the program on a college campus as a big plus.
“The kids rub elbows with college students, and they get acclimated somewhat to a college campus,” said Spaht. “That fear element goes away. Now they see I’m as smart as these kids, and they are. We want to install that within them that they can handle it. They just need to apply themselves and work, and they can do it.”
Students who successfully complete LaPREP are eligible for a $500 per semester scholarship at LSU Shreveport.
Photo: Students in the LaPREP program learn to play chess. (Credit LSU Shreveport LaPREP)
A version of this news article first appeared in the Time and Learning blog.