The University of Maryland, Baltimore has received a $750,000 grant to develop a program designed to spark interest in cancer research and care among middle school children in the university's low-income West Baltimore neighborhood.
The two-year grant from the National Cancer Institute, which will be announced Tuesday, will help launch the UMB CURE Scholars Program, a partnership between UMB and the University of Maryland Greenebaum Cancer Center.
Officials said the program, in the planning stages, will identify middle school students interested in science training. It will then give them support throughout their middle school years to put them on track to finish high school and enter college with knowledge of the field.
UMB President Jay Perman said the school has long worked with its West Baltimore neighbors to address health initiatives, education and job growth. Still, he said, "For a long time, my colleagues and I have had a concern about the fact that we do not have sufficient minority children heading toward health care careers.
"That is a longstanding national issue with African-Americans and Latinos in the health care professions as the population is changing in that direction," Perman said. "Apart from any justice issues, which are important as well, people like to be taken care of by people that understand them, look like them and come from their culture. We need to make sure that the workforce adequately reflects the population and the future."
Nationally and locally, there has been a drive to interest more students, particularly youngsters and girls, in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math, known as STEM.
Maryland, for example, approved new science standards last year for kindergarten through 12th grade that will emphasize innovation. Those new standards will be fully implemented in the 2017-2018 school year.
UMB officials said at least two dozen students will be selected for the two-year pilot. Beginning next year, students will take part in Saturday programs at the school and visit UMB twice each semester to learn about cancer care and research as well as take part in a monthlong STEM summer camp.
UMB officials said the program will examine the city public schools' STEM pipeline efforts beginning in middle school. Officials said UMB will work with the school system and conduct town hall meetings with community leaders and neighborhood associations as well.
Edie House-Foster, the city school spokeswoman, said in a statement that the system is looking forward to the partnership.
"The scholars program gives the students in West Baltimore the opportunity to learn about the many rewarding careers available in the fight against cancer," she said. "They will also connect and engage with some of the most talented researchers and clinicians in the country."
Middle school is a critical time to interest students in STEM subjects, said James Brown, the executive director of the STEM Education Coalition, an alliance of business and education professionals promoting STEM education. Research indicates that it is difficult to persuade high school students to focus on science if they haven't enjoyed the subject before.
"If they have decided science isn't for [them], they will make that decision in seventh grade, especially minority kids," Brown said.
The middle school years also are a time when it is important to snag the interest of students outside of school. Middle school science and math teachers have less knowledge of those subjects than their high school colleagues, so students often find teachers may not be well trained.
"The critical time for them to make career choices intersects with the time when their teachers are least prepared to teach those courses," Brown said.
UMB currently works with West Baltimore middle school students in STEM initiatives such as after-school and mentoring programs. University officials said that the CURE Scholars Program will bolster those efforts while enabling the school to reach out to a community whose demographic is among the most at risk for cancer.
According to 2011 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, African-Americans have the highest incidence of and death rates from all cancers combined among all races and ethnic groups.
According to the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene's 2013 Cancer Data, in Baltimore City, African-Americans accounted for 1,995 of 3,113 cancer cases reported in 2010, more than all other racial and ethnic groups combined.
"Since cancer touches so many people, odds are students have personal experiences, either with family or a friend or a friend's family," said Brian Sturdivant, UMB director of community partnerships and strategic initiatives. "We hope that will spark interest in addressing that particular problem."
Socioeconomic issues also play a factor, state health officials said, as African-Americans are more likely to be uninsured or unable to afford health care. UMB officials point out that the West Baltimore neighborhood's average per-household income in 2011 was $27,302, compared with the city's overall per-household income of $38,721.
The UMB CURE scholarship program, which stands for Continuing Umbrella of Research Experiences, is part of an National Cancer Institute program launched in 1999 to increase diversity in the cancer research workforce, said officials with NCI, which is part of the National Institutes of Health.
Sanya Springfield, director of NCI's Center to Reduce Cancer Health Disparities, said the program has made progress at the high school and undergraduate level since CURE's inception and now aims to reach students sooner. She added that the Bethesda-based NCI selected Baltimore in part because it is nearby.
"Dealing with students at this level is very complex. If we pilot a program in a local way, it allows us to intervene as a staff," she said. "It's really a community-driven program; it's not just for the students, but the parents need to come along and the institutional leadership has to be there."
The UMB Greenebaum Cancer Center also will take part in educating the children.
"This is something that's new for our cancer center," said Dr. Kevin Cullen, the center's director. "This really builds on the work that [UMB] has been engaged in. The new wrinkle here is that we've been able to get the NCI to fund it because NCI understands the importance of bringing in talented and underrepresented minorities into research careers."
Baltimore Sun reporter Liz Bowie contributed to this article.