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Introducing GenZ to the Sea with USM’s GenSea Workforce Development Program

Tue, 11/28/2023 - 10:06am | By: Ivonne Kawas


Patrick Kirby, a graduate student in the Center for STEM Education at The University of Southern Mississippi (USM) is investigating GenSea’s summer internships and the pivotal role that scientists and engineers can play in encouraging the next generation of STEM professionals through workforce development programming.

Kirby, a native of Biloxi, Miss., currently pursuing a Ph.D. in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) education with a research focus on workforce development and informal STEM learning, is exploring the mentor-intern relationship dynamics provided by the GenSea program and the benefits of matching high school students with USM faculty and staff who host students as blue economy mentors.

This past summer, GenSea welcomed a cohort of 17 high school students who interned at various USM research sites to introduce them to the world of STEM along Mississippi’s coastline.

“Internship opportunities of this nature are typically reserved for college students, so there’s not much research investigating these professional learning opportunities for high school students,” said Kirby.

Kirby highlights results from his dissertation titled, “Bringing GenZ to the Sea Through Targeted Workforce Development Programming,” and says pilot studies have shown that the GenSea program significantly influences the interns’ career trajectories and enhances their skills in competencies like communication, productivity, technological literacy, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity.

“After reviewing surveys submitted by GenSea interns, we noticed they consistently emphasized the impactful role their internship mentor played in their skill development, career plans, and overall experience,” said Kirby. “To highlight the value and positive impacts of providing mentorship and hands-on training in STEM for high school students, I plan to build on this preliminary data.”

Moreover, he adds: “By delving deeper into the dynamics of mentorship within the STEM field, I aim to uncover nuanced insights into the reciprocal nature of these relationships. Understanding how mentors shape interns' skill development and how the emotional connection between mentors and their work influences interns' experiences will contribute valuable data to the broader conversation on effective workforce development programs.”

Kirby currently serves as a graduate research assistant for GenSea. In addition to exploring the program's impacts, he contributes to the development and enhancement of curriculum content for both introductory field trips catering to high school students and professional development training sessions for educators.

This has provided Kirby with the opportunity to collaborate with industry experts and educators to co-produce several of the workforce initiatives for the program, including videos that aim to generate awareness and showcase the diversity of careers available in coastal areas.

“The free field trips give kids an opportunity to see firsthand marine science and ocean engineering job possibilities that they can train for at USM,” said Kirby. “Additionally, we host professional development trainings for teachers, counselors, and other career educators so they can learn the many and varied potential careers their students might have on the Mississippi Coast.”

For teachers interested in becoming involved with GenSea, Kirby encourages them to participate in professional development sessions hosted in the summer.

“Our professional development program offers teachers opportunities to earn CEU credits and equips them with curricular resources and activities that connect them with STEM professionals.”

Kirby obtained his Bachelor of Science in biological sciences and a Master of Science in biological sciences with a research emphasis in plant and forest ecology at USM.

During his master's studies, Kirby discovered his love for teaching, while serving as a graduate teaching assistant in the School of Biological, Environmental, and Earth Sciences.

After graduating, he started teaching middle and high school mathematics, teaching pre-algebra and algebra 1. Having a research background, Kirby started to become curious about how his teaching impacted his students, especially in a subject like algebra, where students often come in with misconceptions and low confidence.

“After thoughtful consideration of my interests, I was certain about my desire to return to school to pursue STEM education. My goal was to blend my scientific expertise with my passion for teaching,” said Kirby. “As a native of coastal Mississippi, I was well acquainted with the brain drain issue prevalent in the state. When I learned about GenSea and its mission, I was fully committed and enthusiastic about contributing to its growth.”

The success of the GenSea workforce development program, in bridging the gap between high school students and the blue economy, is grounded in its commitment to building partnerships across the coast. Collaborations have been fostered with various science and technology industries, alongside federal and state agencies, including NOAA, National Weather Service, Naval Oceanography Command, NASA's Stennis Space Center, and the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources.

GenSea is a partnership between USM’s Center for STEM Education and the School of Ocean Science and Engineering. It is made possible thanks to the generous support from the Robert M. Hearin Support Foundation.

“We are currently accepting bookings for spring semester field trips with high school students and offering professional development training sessions for educators,” said Kirby. “Reserve a spot now by contacting us via email.”