African-American high school students work in Boston University physics lab

Project Accelerate: Bridging the Learning Gap

Providing Access to STEM Careers and Academic Programs for Underserved HS Students

Although just as interested in pursuing careers and academic programs in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), too often economically disadvantaged and underrepresented students do not have access to rigorous courses that will prepare them to compete with their peers from more affluent communities.[1] AP Physics, a gate keeper course to many academic programs is STEM, is often not available in the schools these students attend.

A new way to address this access issue has just completed a very successful pilot program in the College of Arts & Sciences (CAS) at Boston University. Called Project Accelerate, it is now gaining national attention for its strong initial outcomes. Project Accelerate is a partnership between the University and high schools, and was originally offered only through four Boston Public Schools (17 students) and three western Massachusetts high schools (seven students). Project Accelerate brings a blended online AP Physics opportunity to students who otherwise would not have access to this important STEM preparatory course. With additional funding through a National Science Foundation DRK12 award (NSF 1720914), the program is now expanding rapidly. It is a scalable solution that blends formal support structures from the student’s home school with the latest online learning through an edX AP® Physics Small Private Online Course (SPOC).

The high school partners commit to provide a site liaison to facilitate communications between the university, participating students, and students’ parents or guardians. The schools must give participating students adequate in-school study time and space and record the course in the students’ transcript and report card. Students from partner schools within commuting distance to the BU campus also attend weekly two-hour hands-on laboratory sessions on the BU campus.

Outperforming Students from Well-Resources School Districts

Project Accelerate was created, with Incubator seed funding, by Mark D. Greenman, research fellow at the BU Graduate School of Arts & Sciences (GRS), and GRS master lecturer Andrew Duffy. Based on a public AP Physics MOOC course developed by Duffy, the online portion of the program emphasizes interactive activities, such as making measurements, gathering data, analyzing data, and making inferences using direct measurement videos, photographs and simulations.

African-American high school students work in Boston University physics labEspecially for participating Boston high school students, the weekly on-campus laboratory sessions are critical to students’ success. Students participate in hands-on, group learning using university equipment, led by trained and supervised undergraduate Teaching Assistants.

The course is structured to work seamlessly with a typical high school schedule, with assessments designed to encourage early success.

Results of the first full pilot year (2016-2017) have been very encouraging. Students enrolled in Project Accelerate outperformed their peer groups taking AP® Physics within traditional classroom settings. Every student enrolled in Project Accelerate took the AP Physics I exam. Project Accelerate Boston Public School (BPS) student success rate (i.e., scores of 3 or better) was 14% compared to 8% for BPS schools offering AP® Physics 1 through traditional classroom courses and the program participants’ non-Boston Public School student success rate was 71% compared to 43% for other non-Boston Public School Massachusetts schools offering AP® Physics 1 through traditional classroom courses.

Responding to a Systemic Problem

“If these young people want to have careers in most of the STEM fields,” explained Greenman, “including nursing and medical field, engineering, or IT, they have to take an introductory Physics course in college. Yet most do not have the access to the underlying Physics courses they need to be successful.”

Female and male high school students work out physics problem on green boardProject Accelerate costs nothing for participating schools or students, with the exception of the cost of registering for the AP test.

“Students receive midterm progress reports, quarterly grades, and AP® credit on their high school transcript,” explained Greenman. “The BU AP® Physics 1 online course is a College Board accredited course and participating schools provide their students with AP® credit.”

“The BU Digital Learning Initiative has been a great partner with the College of Arts & Sciences Physics department on this project,” said Greenman. “Besides providing start-up funding, they provided video support in terms of taping simulations and online videos, just to provide another modality of learning for young people. They continue to supply all technical support as we move into our second year.”

Beond the Pilot: Expanded School Participation

As a result of the early success of Project Accelerate, through word of mouth, many more schools are requesting to join the program. Greenman said, “We have more schools wanting to participate than we can accommodate.”

With additional funding from NSF, the program increased its numbers this year and is now working with West Virginia University to study the feasibility of replicating Project Accelerate in that state. There are now five BPS schools with 25 students, four other MA district schools with 28 students and one West Virginia school with five students participating in the 2nd year of Project Accelerate.

“One of the things we really hope to happen is to prove this as a national model,” he concluded. “There are thousands and tens of thousands of students who can’t access AP Physics, and so often cannot go into STEM fields. We believe we have a national model here to solve that problem.”


[1] While underrepresented youth make up more than 50% of today’s high school population, African-American/Black and Hispanic/Latino youth each comprise only 7% of STEM graduates and 6-7% of the STEM workforce. Underserved high school graduates are just as likely as non-underserved populations to be interested in STEM – 49% in each case. However, underserved students are far less prepared for college STEM (e.g., only 25% of underserved STEM students met the ACT College Readiness Benchmark in science compared to 59% of students who are not underserved).