Netter Center expands pipeline program to serve each high school year

[Editor’s note: This story is part of a series celebrating National Public Health Week by featuring stories that highlight public health efforts across the University. Follow along at #‎PennOneHealth.]

Since 1998, Penn’s Pipeline Program, a partnership between the Netter Center for Community Partnerships and the Perelman School of Medicine, has provided West Philadelphia high school students the chance to deeply engage in science, going beyond textbook lessons to see how practicing researchers and doctors—as well as undergrads and graduate students at Penn—use science to probe medical mysteries and find answers that have an impact on societal health.

The Pipeline Program is currently expanding, folding in expertise from Penn’s schools of Nursing and Veterinary Medicine, to give Sayre High School students new educational experiences in each of their four years.

“The big focus of the program is how to get students, particularly minorities, interested in STEM-based fields,” says Sharon Lewis, director of the Pipeline Program and an assistant professor of clinical neurology at Penn Medicine. “These new additions will give really nice, different perspectives on health care, and help foster the students’ interest in science.”

The program began with curricula for ninth- and 10th-grade students on gastroenterology and neurology, and this past year expanded to offer an 11th-grade program focused on cardiology, in which Penn Nursing students also participated. Penn undergraduate teaching assistants lead science lessons in the fall semester; in the spring, the Sayre group comes to Penn’s medical campus where Penn Medicine students push the high schoolers to delve deeper with talks from physicians, hands-on activities, and group presentations.

Starting this fall, the program will be truly comprehensive, adding a 12th-grade curriculum focused on veterinary medicine, which Brittany Watson, director of shelter medicine and community engagement at Penn Vet, will lead. The program will teach the students about the commonalities between human and animal medicine, and will also challenge the high school students with lessons about ethics and empathy, some of which were based on Watson’s dissertation project—an outreach program she implemented in South Carolina high schools.

“In that program I was really astounded to see how students responded,” Watson says. “Not only did they increase their knowledge of veterinary science, but their attitudes toward animal welfare changed, and so did their behavior—the students ended up taking their own pets in to be spayed and neutered at four times the rate of a control group.”

In adapting that program to the 12th graders at Sayre, Watson and others at Penn will not only offer a capstone to the students’ science education, but will also be available to assist the Sayre students in completing their senior project—a requirement that can present a formidable hurdle to graduation.

Data collected by Lewis and other leaders of the Pipeline Program have shown a tangible impact on the students, dramatically boosting their interest in science and increasing their desire to pursue a career in a health field by 30 percent.

“I just had a conversation with an 11th grader who wants to go on to study neuroscience as a result of this program,” says Joanna Chae, director of Moelis Access Science, the umbrella program under which the Pipeline Program is run. “We’ve seen so many students go from having a passing interest in science to really wanting to do something like this as a career.”

Penn Pipleline Program