A Science, Technology, Engineering, Math, and Medicine (STEM+M) identity, a form of social identity, is the extent to which an individual feels accepted in the STEM+M career fields. The development of a strong STEM+M identity hinges largely on one's perceived self-efficacy in STEM+M and can be bolstered by associating STEM+M with other areas in which an individual already exhibits self-efficacy. In this study, a basketball camp served as a platform for STEM+M education in an effort to link participants' self-efficacy in basketball to STEM+M concepts where they may feel less self-efficacious. Over the first 2 years of the program, known as the Youth Sports Lab (YSL), two cohorts of underrepresented minority (URM) middle school students attended a 4-day long basketball camp hosted at Columbia University in partnership with Harlem- and Albany-based afterschool programs. The camp consisted of basketball training, jump plate fabrication, data collection, invited speakers, and group-based research projects. Our hypotheses were that participation in the program would lead to improved (1) familiarity, (2) perceived importance, and (3) interest in STEM+M. Participant responses, gathered from a 17-question Likert-scale survey administered before and after the camp, demonstrated 10 questions with significantly increased responses due to the program. The results support the conclusion that the sports-based engineering program increased STEM+M identity in the URM cohort. Future improvements to the program will include midyear student engagement and long-term follow-up.
Identity, related to self-image, self-esteem, and personality, is understood to be an important factor in learning [1,2]. Specifically, social identity, or the extent to which an individual perceives themselves as belonging to a social group, plays a distinct role in determining an individual's sense of belonging and interest in a given career [1,3]. The strength of an individual's identity with Science, Technology, Engineering, Math, and Medicine (STEM+M) can either afford or impede that individual's engagement in STEM+M careers. Formation of a strong STEM+M identity is particularly relevant to minority populations, namely, African-Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans, who have long been underrepresented within the STEM+M fields [4,5]. Meaningful engagement of underrepresented minority (URM) groups in STEM+M has the potential to set the stage for the development of transformative new technologies and more impactful science, as diverse scientists and clinicians bring new perspectives to the table [6,7]. Therefore, efforts to expand STEM+M identity among URM youth has the potential to be widely impactful, beyond simply expanding employment in these quickly growing and lucrative career fields.
Prior research on barriers to participation among URM groups within STEM+M career fields has identified a perceived lack of self-efficacy, limited mentorship opportunities, and established stereotypes in STEM+M as drivers of a weak STEM+M identity among URM individuals [3,8]. STEM+M self-efficacy is established when an individual, by their intrinsic motivation, constructs a belief that STEM+M has value within their personal identity, then, on the basis of that belief, finds that they are capable of success in STEM+M [8,9]. High-levels of self-efficacy are important because they correlate with higher performance accomplishments and lower emotional distress with respect to the activity in question . Fostering a strong STEM+M identity to increase the self-efficacy of URM youth in STEM+M has the potential to address these issues.
One method to expand STEM+M identity is to incorporate STEM+M into activities that these populations already enjoy and value. For example, for a young aspiring athlete, interest and self-efficacy in Biomechanical Engineering can be increased by applying engineering concepts to sports to improve their sports performance . As young athletes are intrinsically motivated to improve as athletes, including sports analytics as an athletic performance tool within training can expand their interest and motivation from sports training into STEM . For middle school-age students (whose career trajectories are just being formed [9,13]) from URM backgrounds, teaching STEM+M through a sport like basketball has potential to broaden their interests and self-identity to include STEM+M concepts. In the current study, a newly developed summer basketball camp served as the platform for demonstrating to middle school athletes that a proficiency in STEM+M can improve their performance both in the classroom and on the court. This model for informal education relied on an area (basketball performance) where the participants presumably were already intrinsically motivated and confident. In doing so, the athletes' value for basketball could be tied to STEM+M, thereby associating the two and increasing the value they assigned to STEM+M. This approach was chosen in an effort to make self-efficacy in STEM+M more accessible through basketball performance training. During a short-term camp, the research goal was not necessarily to see a transition from no STEM+M identity to a full-fledged STEM+M identity; change of identity takes significant time to process, evaluate, and reform . Rather, the goal of the camp was to see if short-term engagement in STEM+M (4-days) could begin a shift in student self-efficacy and identity. Beyond the short-term program presented here, our long-term goal is to establish a platform through which young athletes can form a full-fledged new STEM+M identity through repeated engagement . We hypothesized that that participation in the program would lead to three signs of initial engagement and newly committed interest, including: improved (1) familiarity, (2) perceived importance, and (3) interest in STEM+M.
There is a large population of URM students in Harlem, New York City, the neighborhood immediately adjacent to Columbia University. In order to engage the surrounding community in STEM+M and help foster the development of a strong STEM+M identity in young athletes, we hosted a newly developed program which we termed Youth Sports Lab (YSL) on the Columbia University campus. YSL was a 4-day summer camp that hosted middle school students who are enrolled in Harlem area schools. The program was run in collaboration with 4th Family, an Albany-based nonprofit organization, and students were recruited through two local afterschool programs: After-School All-Stars NYC and Active Plus. The research team consisted of faculty, graduate students, and undergraduate students in STEM+M and duly served as program coordinators and coaches. Several members of the team also had collegiate athletic experience. Study hypotheses were tested with a 17-question survey (15-questions in year one of the program, expanded to 17 questions in year two of the program) administered in person immediately before and after the camp (Table 1). The five-point Likert-scale responses (1 indicated low agreement; 5 indicated high agreement) were tested for significance using a Wilcoxon signed rank test for paired nonparametric data. This survey-based protocol was approved by the Columbia University Institutional Review Board (Protocol # AAAR9444).
In the first year, we recruited 12 male students of age 12.8 ± 0.75 years old, identifying as African American (n = 9), Latino (n = 1), and multiracial (n = 6). Following the success of the first year, we expanded the program to 31 students of age 13.2 +/- 1.4 years old, including 26 males and 5 females, identifying as African American (n = 19), Latino (n = 7), and multiracial (n = 5), to demonstrate the scalability of the program. In both years, participants were recruited through community-based organizations with close ties to the local youth basketball community. This ensured that program recruitment was centered on an interest in basketball, rather than STEM+M career interest.
Together, 38 males and 5 females about to enter grades 6–10 (age 11–15, n = 43) attended YSL over the first 2 years of the program (Table 2). The ethnic backgrounds represented in the program included African American (n = 24), Hispanic/Latino (n = 8), and multiracial, including two or more of the previous ethnicities and/or Asian (n = 11). Of the 43 participants who attended day 1 (completed presurveys), 29 participants continued through to the final day (completed postsurveys) and are represented in this study. Fourteen participants did not complete the program due to scheduling conflicts before the end of the week or disinterest in the activities. There were also four participants who identified as Caucasian (not URM) and were therefore excluded from the analyses, though they did complete the program. Of note, there was no apparent separation of participants by race or ethnicity; when choosing their own groups or placed in groups by coaches, the participants worked and played well together. This diversity likely enhanced the program experience with a breadth of perspectives brought to each group activity.
The program curriculum was designed to provide an immersive experience within both basketball and STEM+M careers. Therefore, we provided pure basketball activities (e.g., full court basketball scrimmages), blended basketball and STEM+M activities (e.g., collection of basketball performance data), and pure STEM+M activities (e.g., introduction to electrical engineering and microcontrollers). In this manner, participants were exposed to STEM+M in a variety of ways while maintaining authenticity with respect to basketball. The program curriculum covered five primary topics: biomechanics, engineering, data analysis and visualization, sports performance and rehabilitation, and student directed research projects and presentations. The biomechanics curriculum was covered every day of the program, while the four other primary topics each had a dedicated day (Table 3). Notably, amidst the activities discussed below, many were based on basketball drills, skills development sessions, and competitions.
At the start of the engineering day (day 1), the participants took part in a series of low-cost “NBA rookie combine” stations, wherein they were tasked with completing part of the skills assessment used in the NBA rookie combine, while also learning how to collect their own data. Day 1 concluded with a microcontroller coding lesson using Arduino, during which the participants learned how to wire the circuit that would become the foundation of the jump plate they constructed in day 2 (Fig. 1(a)) . During this segment, the participants learned about various concepts in electrical engineering such as breadboards, wires, resistors, light bulbs, switches, and pressure sensors while testing their wiring configuration and preparing their circuit for the jump plate.
The data analytics and visualization day (day 2) began with an introduction to statistics that was built into a session on creating a heat map that depicted each player's shot accuracy and efficiency from 14 positions across the court (Figs. 1(c) and 1(d)). This program, developed by JD, is available on a freely accessible website so that the players can continue using it beyond the conclusion of YSL [11,16]. The final segment on day 2 was a workshop on building a tool for measuring jump height. This jump plate used the Arduino circuit containing a pressure sensor that the participants wired on day 1, and integrated this into a housing made of wood, nails, and other low-cost supplies (Fig. 1(b)) [17,18]. This system was connected to a graphical user interface in matlab that prompted the user to mark the beginning and end of flight, as detected by the loss and regaining of a signal from the pressure sensor. From these responses by the user, the program calculated jump height based on flight time. The students were first instructed on how to create the jump plate and then groups were created and tasked with building them. The jump plate was used throughout the week as a tool for assessing performance improvement. Therefore, this tool provided young athletes with the ability to assess their own performance using a device they created themselves.
The sports performance and rehabilitation day (day 3) began with a dynamic warmup led by a Columbia University physical therapist. The warm-up was paired with active instruction on how to properly stretch before and after playing and how to prevent injuries while playing. This session was followed by a demonstration on proper squat and jump form, assisted by an on-site two-dimensional motion capture system (Eumotus, NY). The afternoon session on day 3 started with a visit to the Columbia University varsity athletics strength and conditioning facilities. During this tour, the participants learned proper form for an array of lifts that collegiate basketball players routinely perform. The facilities also feature a commercial jump height measuring platform, which the participants were able to use as a point of comparison with the jump plates they built earlier in the week.
Group-Based Research Project.
At the end of day 3, groups of 3–4 participants and one coach formulated research questions related to basketball performance. The questions were often structured so that they could be answered using a number of the data collection tools and skills that were developed during the prior days of YSL. Using the scientific method, the coaches fostered conversations about formulating a hypothesis, developing methods to test the hypothesis, conducting the test, analyzing the results, discussing potential confounding factors, and coming to a conclusion. This helped the participants understand how the scientific method can connect directly to basketball performance. With this frame of reference, each team collected data to answer their research question. The research project provided a project-based learning environment, wherein the teams used critical thinking skills and creativity among a collaborative team for an effective research strategy. Coaches provided feedback and revision throughout the program to improve participants' approaches. Notably, the benefits of project-based learning extend beyond the classroom environment and onto the basketball court, where effective communication, collaboration, and critical thinking enhance team success.
The final day (day 4) of YSL was an opportunity for the participants to demonstrate their accomplishments throughout the week during a presentation of their scientific method-based project. With the data from day 3, the teams each made a poster that featured their research question, hypothesis, methods, results, discussion, and conclusions (Fig. 2). The posters were presented by the students to Columbia University faculty, graduate students, and administrators during a poster session.
A key facet of the YSL curriculum were the invited guest speakers, who offered perspectives on pursuing careers within STEM+M in an effort to maintain professional ties to athletics. These talks were broad in scope; between the two years that YSL has been active, they included an athletic trainer, engineering faculty member, orthopedic medical doctor, physical therapist, motion capture specialist, NBA player, collegiate basketball player, and a nonprofit organization founder. Five out of the eight speakers identified as URM, offering additional mentors who share experiences with the participants that are unique to their background as URM. The focus of each talk, described in brief below, was on each person's path to their current career and how sports directed their steps along the way. Each talk also included a demonstration that was intimately related to the speaker's area of expertise. The athletic trainer demonstrated proper form for both shuffling on the court and an array of weight lifts that collegiate basketball players perform. The biomedical engineering faculty member spoke on bio-electricity and applied an adhesive electrode to the biceps muscle, demonstrating how electrical activity in muscles results in muscle firing. The medical doctor spoke on how a lifelong love of football brought him to his current career; he also showed the participants how ultrasound can be used to visualize tendons and muscles in the body. The physical therapist led a dynamic warmup, discussing how properly warming up can largely prevent injuries during play. The motion capture specialist brought a portable two-dimensional motion capture setup on-site and showed the participants how this technology can track squat and jump form, giving live feedback on helpful corrections for better form. Both the collegiate and the professional basketball players spoke on the fact that their education had been essential to their success on the court. Finally, the nonprofit organization founder spoke about how basketball was his platform for giving back to his community; he gave back to the youth in his area by helping them improve their sport and assign value to their education while they were in K-12 grades.
The responses from the presurveys and postsurveys are shown in Figs. 3–6 with significance indicated for p < 0.05. With respect to the general self-assessment (questions 1 and 3), the response to question 1 increased significantly and there was a trend toward increasing (p = 0.0625) in question 3 (Fig. 3). All five questions (5, 6, 7, 10, and 14) assessing the participants' familiarity with concepts in STEM+M increased (Fig. 4). Regarding perceived importance (questions 2, 4, 11, 13, and 17), the responses to questions 4 and 17 both significantly increased (Fig. 5). Finally, the assessment of interest in STEM+M (questions 8, 9, 12, 15, and 16) demonstrated significant increases in two (questions 9 and 12) of the five questions and a trend toward increasing (p = 0.0631) in question 15 (Fig. 6). These results support the hypothesis that participation in the program would result in initial engagement and a newly committed interest in STEM+M. The responses from the four Caucasian participants, not included here, demonstrated increases across 12 questions. Because the focus of this study was on URM, these data were excluded so as to not bias the impact of the program on URM participants.
The survey instrument also provided an opportunity for participants to write responses to prompts pertaining to definitions of success, aspirations after high school, and their perception of the connection between the classroom and sports. Among the multitude of responses offered in this section of the survey were notable testaments to the impact of the program, including:
I learned that success as an athlete is defined as “being able to realize what your strengths and weaknesses are.”
“Math and science can help me in sports”
The career I hope to have is “an engineer, because I love to create, build, and imagine.”
“I learned that basketball can help me with my communication skills in school.”
“Math helps with my time and science helps with my vertical.”
The YSL program was effective in enhancing self-assessment, familiarity, perceived importance, and interest in STEM+M. The general self-assessment was intended to evaluate the participants' self-awareness about STEM+M in the context of basketball. These questions allowed us to determine participants' confidence in evaluating their strengths and weaknesses and their awareness of what they should practice in order to improve. With regards to strengths and weaknesses (question 1), the participants progressed from just above neutral to a strong positive response, indicating that the tools we offered, such as data collection using the jump plate and heat map, improved their ability to address weak areas of their performance.
The familiarity assessment was an indicator of transactional teaching, meaning that situations were created for students to interact with the materials and construct knowledge for themselves [19,20]. This approach is more impactful than the transmission method, which is a teacher-centered approach and does not offer student engagement [19,20]. Transformational teaching, which requires creating situations in which the students are able to independently adapt their values, beliefs, and attitudes, is typically much more impactful [19,20]. Interestingly, answers to all five questions related to familiarity indicated that participants became more familiar with sports analytics, sports medicine, sports science, and criteria for improvement in their sport. With regards to the goals for the program, we see this as an indicator of an initial engagement in STEM+M; though familiarity does not suggest interest, it does suggest that the participants listened, processed, and were able to demonstrate awareness of the content taught during the week. As familiarity and awareness of careers are the first steps to interest in and future pursuits of these careers, this is a notable finding.
Building on this, the assessment of perceived importance indicates transformational teaching, wherein students are actively and independently engaged in the learning process. By imparting a new sense of the importance of STEM+M, participants' beliefs and attitudes are altered, in this case in direct response to participation in YSL. Answers to two out of five perceived importance questions increased significantly from before to after the program, demonstrating that participants viewed math and science as important to their success as athletes. Before the program, participants already agreed that this was the case, but afterward this sentiment was increased significantly.
Finally, and likely the most meaningful take away from YSL, the assessment of interest in STEM+M from before to after the program exhibited two questions where participant interest increased significantly. Interest is another indicator of transformational teaching, notably suggesting a change in participants' values, and is the direct measure of the programmatic goal to inspire a newly committed interest in STEM+M among the participants. Of the breadth of topics covered in the program, the change in response of questions 9 and 12 demonstrated that participants' interest in pursuing a career in medicine, physical therapy, athletic training, and interest in learning more about sports analytics and sports science were significantly influenced by the YSL program. These sentiments in particular may be related to the guest speakers, who offered anecdotes of their own experiences in these areas.
The data presented here are the culmination of data collected from the first 2 years of YSL. The program was very similar between the 2 years, although there were slight programmatic differences made in the second year, attributed to lessons learned during the first year. Notably, the survey was adapted after the first year to include two new questions (6 and 11) so that we could assess factors particular to the “+ Medicine” focus of the program. Additionally, the speakers differed from year to year. In the second year, we added an engineering faculty talk because all of the invited speakers in the first year were focused on sports medicine. We also added a segment dedicated to learning how to use an Arduino, as the Arduino facet of the jump plate caused some confusion during the first year. Finally, we expanded the invitation for the program from 12 participants in the first year to 31 in the second year; this also resulted in a small group of females attending in the second year, after unfortunately having no female participants in the first year. However, retention of female participants from the start to finish of the week-long program in year two was low. Future recruitment for participants from community partners with a larger female cohort may help expand female attendance and retention. A stronger effort by the female coaches to engage the female participants, taking feedback on how they would like their participation to look (e.g., co-ed versus female-only games) may also enhance female retention in the program. Despite the increased cohort size in year two, overall participant retention was also lower, suggesting that a slightly smaller cohort size may offer more a more meaningful experience for participants.
Reviewing these results, derived from surveying immediately before and after the program, naturally raises the question “how lasting is this impact?” The next phase of YSL involves collecting long-term follow-up data on the participants. The results of this assessment will offer multiple new directions. First, these data will suggest areas where the program only impacts the participants temporarily. Knowing this will allow the research team to adapt the curriculum accordingly. Second, these data will provide the research team with focus for midyear programing. To reinforce areas that participants did not fully understand during the summer program, a midyear one-day program can be added to provide supplemental exposure to the material. Third, this follow-up survey will allow the research team to maintain contact with participants. In doing so, the participants can readily access the research team with questions when they are making college or other career decisions, if they do not have STEM+M mentorship available to them. As the program expands, we plan to address the areas where meaningful increase in response was not demonstrated by inviting additional guest speakers and adding activities that connect STEM+M concepts with participants' inherent motivation to improve their performance. This will likely entail midyear programing, as mentioned above, as well as additional 4-day programs run in other locations and in the context of other sports. These additions will make the program accessible to a wider range of participants.
Prior efforts by STEM+M researchers demonstrated findings consistent with what we presented here. For example, Drazan et al. developed a shooting clinic for youth basketball players representing a diverse group of ethnicities and found that integration of sports analytics into basketball improved players' interest in STEM . This programing was integrated into the YSL curriculum, and our findings were fittingly aligned with the prior findings. Nadelson and Callahan compared two STEM outreach programs (eCamp and eGirls) that hosted exiting eighth to tenth graders for a 2-day engineering outreach program that contextualized STEM concepts within a breadth of activities (e.g., biomechanics of footwear, solving forensic mysteries, robotics, rocketry, physics of rock climbing, etc.). The authors found that, although students' engineering perceptions and attitudes increased, these changes did not impact their college attitudes . A key difference between these programs and YSL is the population recruited for the program: participants in eCamp and eGirls were primarily interested in attending a summer STEM camp while participants in YSL were primarily interested in attending a summer basketball camp. As the act of signing up for a voluntary STEM enrichment program suggests an increased pre-existing STEM interest, this may indicate that YSL is reaching a previously inaccessible group of URM youth . Furthermore, assessment of college interests (i.e., attitudes) was not rigorously evaluated for YSL; a qualitative assessment was determined based on the free response portion of the survey. Beyond K-12 education, Kadlowec and Navaab found that teaching mechanics of materials in the contexts of sports and sporting activities fostered mastery of the learning objectives and increased interest in the material among students from 2-year and 4-year college programs . This expands on our findings by establishing that intervention in collegiate programs, where students have already identified their interest in STEM, can further increase student interest. Together the findings from these widespread efforts support the use of nontraditional STEM+M connections and activities for fostering an increased interest in STEM+M among a variety of student populations.
The principles of the YSL program can be expanded into many other sports (e.g., track and field, soccer, volleyball, ballet, gymnastics). The hope is that this work provides other coordinators of community-based programs the foundation for introducing young athletes to the applicability and relevance of STEM+M in sports performance. Sport-specific data collection offers a great starting point for implementing such a program. In track and field, this may include recording sprint data with and without the use of starting blocks. In ballet, this may include using 3D motion capture to perfect a plié. The jump plates we used in the program are also relevant to other sports where jumping high is necessary (e.g., gymnastics, high jump, volleyball, soccer), and is therefore easily adaptable to programs focused on those sports. The success of such efforts depends on substantial planning and on a structure for financial sustainability. There are both government and foundation grants available that support STEM educational initiatives, including funding from the NSF and local foundations that support community-based programs for young people and minority populations. There are also opportunities for sponsorships and donations from corporate partners looking to support these initiatives. Although the financial burden of creating a new sports-based STEM+M program is profound, the long- and short-term benefits of these efforts are substantial. Benefits include: providing educational extracurricular activities to young athletes in urban areas; providing mentorship for students who may not have connections to collegiate athletes, graduate students, and professors; expanding the perception of STEM+M to include nontraditional practices such as sports analytics and sports medicine, thereby engaging a wider population of students; and expanding minority group representation in STEM+M fields.
The results presented here demonstrate that early intervention in STEM+M education through informal teaching settings (such as on-court basketball training) that connect with young students' existing interests is an effective means for generating new familiarity with, perceived importance of, and interest in STEM+M. As this program expands into other contexts (other sports, hobbies, etc.) we may begin to set the stage for a new paradigm in informal STEM+M education that imparts students with a strong sense of self-efficacy and identity in STEM+M. The research team hopes that this body of work will be adapted by others in STEM+M fields who are interested in education in order to continue efforts toward reaching young minds and expanding the set of perspectives that innovate the future.
The authors would like to thank Columbia University's Departments of Biomedical Engineering and Orthopedic Surgery for hosting YSL for the past two years. We also are indebted to 4th Family, After-School All Stars New York, and Active Plus for their continued partnership with our program, both in bringing students to attend and providing staff to help run the program.
Financial support was provided by the Carroll Laboratories for Orthopedic Surgery (Funder ID: 10.13039/100006474).
Department of Biomedical Engineering (Funder ID: 10.13039/100006474).
National Science Foundation (DGE–1644869 to BPM) (Funder ID: 10.13039/100000001).