For many years I have been aware that my academic success, beginning with a rocky start from a rural community in Arkansas, is due in large part to six key mentors who provided me with opportunities and guidance to acquire an education that underpins my scientific career.
In 2005, I began an effort to find ways to help rural K-12 students elevate achievement and preparedness for exciting and prosperous careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), beginning with students from my home community of Grapevine, Arkansas.
My motivation stemmed from an impoverished childhood, dysfunctional family, and lack of preparation in math and science for college studies. Earning a doctorate in biochemistry enabled me to overcome the barriers of poverty, child abuse, and inadequate public K-12 education. Aspirnaut™ was founded with the help of my wife, sister and brother.
Aspirnaut™ has evolved from the initial innovation of “WiFi” school buses to two flagship components: “beaming” of weekly STEM labs to elementary and middle schools in rural America, and summer research internships for high school and undergraduate students.
The results exceed our expectations. To date, 55 high school students have completed research internships. Of the 37 who have now graduated from high school, 36 have or are attending college. Thirty-two of those in college have or are pursuing STEM-related studies. Over 50 undergraduates have completed internships and over half of those who have graduated from college are pursuing graduate level studies in STEM. Over 2,000 elementary and middle school students have participated in the beaming of STEM labs.
Through the Aspirnaut™ K-20 STEM pipeline for diversity, our intent is to give back in recognition of the many friends and mentors who paved the way for us to get an education, which was the means to overcome personal challenges and acquire skills for professional careers. We understand the plight of rural youth, having walked a mile in their shoes. We understand the need for STEM proficiency as a foundation for the high-tech workforce needed in the 21st century. We are hopeful that our pipeline model will be replicated at other universities, bringing STEM education opportunities to the “Forgotten Student.”
Billy Hudson, 2013
I grew up in Grapevine, Arkansas, in the 1940’s and -50’s on the Garden Seed Road, and lived without electricity for many years. We only had indoor plumbing my last year at home. My father was a logger with a 4th grade education. My mother, who had an 8th grade education, helped manage the farm, which consisted of cotton, vegetables, 20,000 chickens, and a few livestock. Both had attended the same one-room school in the community.
In the middle of the 11th grade, I began skipping one or two days of school each week because of an extremely abusive and dysfunctional family. I left home after the 11th grade at age 16, a high school dropout, and with essentially no math and science past the 8th grade. I was rescued by a high school teacher who paved the way for me to take a summer college course.
Eventually I earned a Bachelor of Science degree followed by a Master’s and Doctorate in biochemistry. This led me to postdoctoral studies at Harvard Medical School. My college education enabled me to break through the barriers of poverty, abuse, and an inadequate public school education to become a research scientist, attaining my current position as professor of medicine; biochemistry; and pathology, microbiology and immunology. Importantly, my educational path was illuminated by the mentorship of a high school teacher, a college dietician, and four university professors–I shall always be indebted!
Armed with self-awareness of the essential role of mentors along my educational journey, I returned to my home community to find a way to encourage students to aspire to high achievement in STEM and to pursue post-secondary studies. In October 2005, I rode the school bus that I rode as a child on the Garden Seed Road. The exhausting trip took 1.5 hours to reach school and then 1.5 hours on the return. It seemed that the school bus was a one-room school with students of various ages, but the students had nothing to do. This was idle time with no teacher. The idle time could be transformed into extended learning time with laptop computers and ultimately with internet access while in motion. The time on the bus seemed to be a unique opportunity for an educational intervention, a time where no one had staked out a claim for anything except to transport human cargo safely to school. Transformation of the bus time to extended learning time could amount to up to 30% additional learning time–and it was time under the purview of the public school.
In April 2007, my wife, Dr. Julie Hudson, sister, Ann Hudson Kincl, and brother, Johnny Hudson, and I launched the Aspirnaut™ Initiative–aspire, seek, and achieve–to transform the idle time on the bus into extended e-learning time for math and science. The initiative was a partnership among the community of Grapevine, the Sheridan School District, and Vanderbilt University Medical Center. Computers with internet access were provided to high ability students and video iPods for all others. Internet-in-Motion had just perfected internet access technology for recreational vehicles and became available in the spring of 2007. Management of the personalized education on the bus was provided by a teacher in a “one-room school” in the community two days per week, in partnership with Vanderbilt University Medical Center. The initiative was endorsed by former Governor Huckabee of Arkansas, Lieutenant Governor Bill Halter of Arkansas, Dr. Jerome Friedman, Nobel Laureate and Professor Emeritus of Physics at MIT, and by other preeminent scientists. The feasibility of the WiFi bus was demonstrated over a 3-year pilot study during which over 50 semesters of online STEM courses were completed.
Today, Aspirnaut™ has emerged as a comprehensive K-20 STEM pipeline program for diversity. The two main components are: “beaming” of STEM labs to elementary and middle schools in rural America and summer research internships for diverse high school and undergraduate students. Participants are supported by access to accelerated online courses, individual career development, mentorship by STEM professionals, college preparation, and a university partnership. It is a model that could be replicated by other major universities to connect opportunity to the “Forgotten Student.”