Oregon MESA pivots to a week long celebration of science

Oregon MESA is hosting a week of virtual events May 11-14 for middle school and high school students to explore college pathways, STEM careers and science activities related to healthcare, engineering and entrepreneurship. 

Oregon MESA (Mathematics, Engineering, Science, Achievement) is a Portland State program devoted to increasing STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) education and exposure for students who are historically underrepresented in STEM fields, including students of color, girls, recent immigrants and refugees, and low-income students. 

MESA trains teachers in a specialized STEM curriculum in schools across Oregon. The MESA curriculum, normally delivered during after-school programs, is hands-on, and students participate in team engineering competitions to solve real world issues.

Three MESA students

Studies have found that MESA students show improvements in science and math grades and are more likely to graduate from high school.

 “Our ultimate goal is that these students are going to be leaders in the innovation economy,” says Tong Zhang, PhD, executive director of Oregon MESA.

Each May, Oregon MESA students come together at Portland State to demonstrate their engineering projects, tour the PSU campus and meet with industry professionals on MESA Day. 

“It’s part rally, part celebration, part engineering competition,” says Zhang. “It’s the highlight of the year.”

Due to COVID-19, Oregon MESA had to pivot their plans for MESA Day. Instead of scrapping the event, they decided to expand it. Zhang and her colleagues have teamed up with the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI) and the Portland Workforce Alliance to prepare four days of virtual programming.

Three days of MESA week will focus on a theme related to STEM: healthcare, engineering and entrepreneurship for social good. Presentations will highlight STEM careers, the college process, STEM activities and inventorship. 

During MESA week, students will learn from a wide range of experts including engineers from Nike and Intel, PSU professor of virology Ken Stedman and Maxine Dexter, MD, a pulmonary and critical care physician working on the frontlines of the COVID-19 response. 

Hosting a virtual event comes with some challenges, such as ensuring that participants have adequate access to technology. To try to meet this challenge, the Oregon MESA team is calling each of their students to make sure they know about MESA week and to help them register for the event. Due to the significant barriers that many students and families are facing, they know that they won’t be able to reach every student but wanted to at least provide a personal touchpoint to check in with families. 

But there are some benefits, too, to having MESA week online. For starters, all sessions will be recorded so students who aren’t able to attend the sessions live will still be able to benefit from the material. 

Four MESA students

Additionally, the program is reaching a broader audience. While MESA Day is normally just for Oregon MESA students, MESA week is open for all MESA students across the United States as well as other interested middle school and high school students. Zhang says there are students from as far away as Maryland and Tennessee who have registered to attend. 

The final day of MESA week will be devoted to celebration, including celebrating MESA students who are graduating from high school. 

“We’re doing our best to celebrate our seniors because most —  if not all — of them have had their graduations canceled,” says Zhang.

MESA Oregon itself had to cancel its March 12 gala celebrating the program’s 35th year anniversary. They plan to celebrate next year.

“It will be our 35 plus one gala,” says Zhang.

And it’s looking like Oregon MESA may have even more to celebrate next year. The Portland Children's Levy Allocation Committee recently unanimously approved a $350,000 grant for MESA’s mentoring program. If approved by the Portland City Council, this funding will allow Oregon MESA to expand its reach.

“We're excited to be a part of a cohort of really great programs that are rigorously studying and expanding intentionally to underserved areas,” says Zhang. “It will allow us to expand the schools that we serve and reach more students” 

Learn more about MESA week. 

Photos by Kyrie Kellett (top) and Kim Oanh Nguyen (bottom)