MESA receives $1.1 million in grants to expand equitable STEM education statewide

two MESA students presenting a poster of their teacher alert system
Students presenting their project at MESA day (photo by Kim Nguyen)

Oregon MESA, which has operated out of Portland State for 36 years, is expanding thanks to new funding. 

MESA trains middle and high school teachers to help underrepresented students excel in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) through after school classes, invention competitions, family engagement, community outreach events and experiences connecting with industry and college partners. Until now MESA has predominantly served students in the Portland metro area and Salem, but is now poised to take its proven STEM teaching model to even more teachers and students.

“MESA is such an important program to address the issue of underrepresented students in STEM. By addressing the problem earlier in the pipeline, MESA is able to both increase awareness of STEM degree opportunities, and, more importantly, provide students with the confidence and motivation to pursue STEM in college,” says Wu-chi Feng, Interim Dean of PSU's Maseeh College of Engineering and Computer Science. “This expansion is great for both Portland State University and the state of Oregon."

A three-year $981,000 grant from the Lemelson Foundation and two-year $180,000 grant from the Meyer Memorial Trust will fund expansion of MESA’s STEM education programming to schools in Klamath Falls, Eugene and Albany. 

“MESA’s Invention Education programming plays a critical role in helping under-represented students see themselves as part of the innovation economy,” says Rachel Jagoda Brunette, Program Officer for The Lemelson Foundation. “We’re excited to support their expansion, so that more students and their surrounding communities have the opportunity to benefit from the power of invention experiences.”

This year, MESA will serve four new schools in Klamath County and others in existing regions for a total of 40 schools. By 2023, MESA plans to expand to 50 schools. 

“MESA is different in that we are working specifically to engage underrepresented students in STEM,” says Tong Zhang, MESA executive director. “There are a lot of really great opportunities in STEM education across the state, but sometimes they're not very accessible.”

MESA will work with community partners, including Oregon Tech in Klamath Falls, to tailor the program to the unique needs of the different communities served by the expanded program. 

“We work with families, we work with local higher ed institutions, we work with local industry so that students are really supported throughout their whole journey, ” says Zhang. “The ultimate goal is that students who otherwise would not have seen themselves as engineers or scientists can actually start thinking about this as a potential career path and see opportunities in their local community.”

This year’s theme for MESA’s annual invention competition  — “Harvest to Table” — exemplifies how the program can be adapted to serve the needs of different communities. Students will identify a client in their community who does work related to the food system and interview them to learn about their specific needs and challenges in bringing food to their community. They will then design a prototype of an invention to help the client. 

While students in the Portland metro area may be working on inventions to address the needs of restaurant workers or food distributors, students in Southern Oregon may be tackling problems related to drought or helping local migrant workers. Teams from different MESA schools will compete in a statewide competition. The winning team will compete in a national competition, all expenses paid. 

An evaluation of Oregon MESA by Education Northwest last year found that MESA students are significantly more likely to graduate from high school than similar peers and have more confidence in their STEM skills and  a stronger STEM identity. 

“They feel like they belong in the STEM fields, and feel like they could see themselves becoming an engineer,” says Zhang. With MESA’s expansion, more Oregonian students will now be able to access these benefits.

To further their work of advocating for STEM education for underrepresented students across the state, MESA has joined Oregon Partners for Education Justice, a community-centered advocacy organization dedicated to ensuring that Oregon students receive equitable education.

“We are one of the only STEM-focused organizations in the group,” says Zhang. “There's a lot of inequity in STEM education, and we want to use our position to influence statewide policy. We're hoping to use our platform to be able to advocate for all students and to push forward the fact that STEM education is an important area that needs to be invested in and needs to be implemented in an equitable way.”