Empowering Tomorrow’s Scientists: Insights from CCI’s Evaluation of SARP East

CoreCollaborative International has contracted with NASA’s Student Airborne Research Program (SARP) to provide an external evaluation of SARP’s summer internship program, which NASA piloted for 2023 in a new location. SARP East, located in the Chesapeake Bay, was created as a new affiliate of a longstanding program hosted on the West Coast. In its inaugural year, SARP East brought together 22 undergraduate interns from a wide array of backgrounds, experiences, and training for an eight-week hands-on research experience.

SARP was originally founded fifteen years ago, with the goal of retaining students in science careers. Like the interns in the West Coast’s more veteran affiliate program, 2023’s SARP East interns took part in a variety of research tasks to help support NASA satellite missions. Interns assisted in the operations of instruments onboard NASA’s fleet of flying science laboratories used for studying Earth system processes. Along with airborne data collection, interns also took measurements at field sites. The program culminated with formal presentations of research results focused in subject areas including atmospheric chemistry, air quality, forest ecology, and ocean biology.

Each SARP intern came to the program with a strong academic background in a STEM field and an interest in applying that background to the study of the Earth system. Interns were joined by a team of faculty, graduate mentors, and staff, drawn from both universities and NASA and NASA flight operations and engineering instructors. The instructional team guided interns through instrument and flight preparations, data analysis, and interpretation. 

CCI was brought in to provide external program evaluation for the program, having earlier worked with NASA on a different initiative, the Minority University Research Education Project, or NASA-MIRO. For SARP, CCI first worked with NASA stakeholders to formulate key research questions. Research questions included: To what extent do participants change the way they see themselves in future science careers? To what extent do they see themselves as members of interdisciplinary, intercultural teams?  In what ways does SARP East support the establishment of sustainable mentorship providing career paths for interns to join the Earth Science workforce? And how can SARP East modify its structure so as to better facilitate outcome goals?

To provide answers to these key research questions, the CCI team analyzed numerous data sources which included: pre- and post-focus groups with students, mentors, and faculty; students’ application materials and student work including posters and presentations; findings from two administrations of the Beliefs, Events, and Values Inventory (BEVI); faculty and mentor interviews; on-site observation; and a pre-program success survey. 

CCI’s evaluation concluded that the inaugural SARP East program provided a unique opportunity for undergraduates to “try on” different types of research and to experience different private industry and public agency approaches. This valuable experience allowed interns to narrow down their interests before approaching graduate school. Data suggests that the primary highlights, for participants in SARP East, included collaboration with NASA scientists, fieldwork, and sessions designed to understand different career pathways in atmospheric science. 

In its evaluation, CCI also recommended several interventions designed to help NASA build on these positive outcomes. Adjustments in the areas of programmatic structure, community partnerships, and training and mentorship will – the CCI team concluded – help NASA better achieve its goals, and increase the program’s long-term impact for future iterations of SARP East. Though the 2023 evaluation process is just now concluding, CCI hopes to work with NASA on more targeted SARP program evaluation in future years.

According to NASA’s Dr. Robert J. Swap, Associate Division Director for Mission Planning in the Earth Sciences, CCI was chosen to conduct SARP East’s inaugural evaluation due to CCI’s “extensive experience in intercultural assessment/development of experiential learning programs.”  The SARP East program decided, Swap said, that it would “deliberately involve CCI from the outset so that we have demonstrable, appropriate, external, educational consultative experience baked into the process.” That intentional planning led to positive results for NASA stakeholders who, through CCI’s involvement, were led to greater awareness around the complexity of their goal of placing and retaining undergraduates in science careers.

To each project it takes up, the CCI team brings attention to the needs and aims of program stakeholders and to the experiences of program participants. Like NASA, clients receive targeted, evidence-based advice on interventions needed to reach identified goals. Find out how CCI’s skills and expertise can help your organization reach its goals by contacting CCI today.

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