UW News

July 9, 2009

Busy GEAR-UP Project thriving, looking ahead at the 10 year mark

UW News

For 10 years now, the UW’s GEAR-UP Project has helped middle school students prepare for high school and high schoolers prepare for college. But the people behind this hard-working program aren’t taking much time to celebrate the anniversary — after all, summer is their busiest season.

GEAR-UP stands for Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs. It’s a federally funded program the UW runs in partnership with the Washington state Office of the Governor, the Higher Education Coordinating Board and the College Success Foundation.

GEAR-UP at the UW started in 1999, and was one of the first in the nation. The project works in partnership with Washington State GEAR-UP, which has programs in 23 counties and works with 84 different school districts.

The program’s primary mission, according to Thomas J. Calhoun Jr., its director and an assistant dean in the College of Engineering, is “to prepare students who come from low-income backgrounds to be successful in their high school, to complete high school and to attend some sort of post-secondary education.”

Though the 10th anniversary will be noted quietly, Calhoun said that for such a grant-funded program, surviving and thriving for a decade is indeed a milestone.

“We’re very proud of the longevity of the program,” he said. “Often, programs like this come and go, and I think it’s a testament to the quality of the program and the excitement it has generated for students around the state of Washington who have the chance to participate.”

GEAR-UP is likely best known for its weeklong summer camps held on the UW campus. Called Summer Institutes, these feature seminars taught by UW faculty, college and career-planning activities, mentoring from undergraduates, enrichment activities such as visits to museums and cultural sites and a taste of college residential life.

Mornings, the students attend seminars on a variety of subjects including education, communication, informatics, law and even cinema studies. Their afternoons are usually spent in hands-on learning labs at such places as the UW’s Applied Physics lab, the Burke Museum, the botany greenhouse, planetarium or other sites. Summer Institute students also tour University facilities and attend college planning and skills workshops on scholarships, fiscal literacy, budgeting and more. This summer there are four sessions, the second of which started on Monday.

While the summer institutes are GEAR-UP’s biggest effort, that’s not all the program does, by far. There also are professional development opportunities for teachers, administrators and counselors to help them better serve low-income students, partnering with many area school districts. What these teachers learn in the summer, they put into practice the following year in their own classrooms.

Calhoun said that the GEAR-UP Project is currently in the fourth year of its second six-year grant cycle. Though funding is never certain, he said he’s “looking forward to being successful for another round.”

And when that application is made, it will reflect one important change since the last grant cycle: While GEAR-UP was housed in the College of Arts and Sciences until fall of 2008, it is now housed in the College of Engineering.

Calhoun said this change presents exciting opportunities to identify and provide programming for students who have an inclination toward the “STEM” fields — science, technology, engineering and math. He stressed, however, that the new grant “will be written in a way not to exclude students in other fields.”

One such effort has already begun — the Mathematics Academy is an intensive, four-week residential session for high-performing students entering the 12th grade in the fall. It’s a small pilot program this year, Calhoun said, with about 30 students, aimed at helping these young scholars prepare for college. “The point is that in science, engineering and math the transition from high school to college can be huge,” he said, and the academy is designed to ease that transition.

“It’s an example of the type of programming we’re excited to be thinking about for the future of GEAR-UP.”

So while the folks behind GEAR-UP are a little too busy this summer to party over the program’s 10-year anniversary, they clearly have reason to be proud. Counting this summer’s 400 student participants, about 6,200 students have been served by various GEAR-UP summer institutes since they started in 2000.

Calhoun said he knows the program is having an effect because of “the many hundreds of students who participated in GEAR-UP along the way who are now in college around the state of Washington,” including here at the UW.

“We see them all the time.”