Project Spotlight: Bridging the Gap

Project Spotlight: Bridging the Gap

Monday, April 6, 2015

STELAR had the opportunity to speak with Courtney Raquel Wiggins, M.A. (Wildlife Conservation Society) about the Bridging the Gap project, which is a school-to-career model program that consists of afterschool and weekend programming for high school students at four New York City area zoos and an aquarium, followed by mentoring. The goal is to promote affective, cognitive and behavioral outcomes among 150 low-income minority youth necessary to pursue careers in the wildlife sciences.

*     Can you share how your ITEST project impacts youth?

Bridging the Gap connects young people between the ages of 14 to18 from underrepresented minority groups directly with wildlife and conservation science professionals to encourage them to pursue careers in the STEM fields.  The project also takes a holistic approach in an effort to positively impact our students by not only providing them with support and guidance, but their parents/guardians and their schools as well.  Over the course of three years, 150 high school students participated in more than 100 hours if training, workshops, internships, college prep classes, parent/guardian workshops, and mentoring by Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) staff.

*     What excites you most about the work you do every day?

Just knowing that the creation of Bridging the Gap has afforded a host of youth in New York City the chance to discover their potential and define their goals, excites me to no end!  Our students are determined, intelligent, and have a passion for learning.  I am truly proud of and inspired by all of our participants!    

*     What do you think is the most important learning in this area based on your project work to-date?

One unique aspect of Bridging the Gap is our community mentoring sessions that occur at all five of our sites (Bronx Zoo, New York Aquarium, Central Park Zoo, Prospect Park Zoo, Queens Zoo) and involve both our students and WCS staff.  Supporting students in pursuing STEM careers along with building relationships and contacts with professionals is the primary goal. A community mentoring model was adopted to actively engage both parties through the use of hands-on activities and discussion topics that strengthened their bond.  Students from our previous cohorts were invited to join these sessions and provided additional support and encouragement to current participants.

When surveyed about their mentoring experience, data indicated strong benefits to second year students with a mean rating of 4.5 out of 5 for the statement “Overall the mentorship assistance was helpful,” and 4.6 out of 5 for “My mentor(s) are willing to give me advice and answer my questions.”

From our findings it is apparent that the adaption of a Community Mentoring Model has allowed WCS to best use the strength of our professional staff to support Bridging the Gap students.  

*     What strategies have you found most effective for sharing your project’s work and findings with broader audiences?

Writing articles about Bridging the Gap findings, updating our website with project statistics and events, maintaining our social media pages, and holding events have all been effective in spreading the word about Bridging the Gap.  Also, what I have found to be the most effective especially during the recruitment phase of the program (where we are building interest with high school students, school personnel, and the surrounding community) is to simply connect and communicate in-person.  This approach is direct, builds trust, heightens interest, and lays the foundation for success for both the project and selected students.