Educational Trajectories of Low-Income Urban Youth in Science and Technology

Principal Investigator: 
Project Overview
Background & Purpose: 

To document and understand the postsecondary pathways of lower-income urban youth, whether into a trade, entry level job, or college setting. How do mentoring relationships, financial considerations, and participation in community or school-to-work programs (while in high school) influence the nature of their pathways?


Holyoke and Springfield MA, various high schools, community colleges, and trade colleges. While the goal is to understand how individuals eventually achieve four-year STEM degrees, the focus is on the initial steps in the complex pathways that many individuals take. Thus, we do not focus on four-year colleges and universities, for the most part as many of our participants do not reach them within two to 10 years after high school graduation.

Research Design: 

The research design for this project is longitudinal, and is designed to generate evidence that is both descriptive and associative/correlational through case study, ethnography, and observation.

This project collects original data using school records/policy documents, personal observation, and survey research, including self-completion questionnaires (both paper and pencil, and online), semi-structured/informal interviews (both face-to-face and telephone), and focus groups. Instruments and measures used barriers to education, mentor role instrument, social capital surveys, self-efficacy, and instrumentality.

We construct case studies of individual participant’s experiences. We construct case studies of companies using multiple data sources of policy documents, human resource, and employee interviews. We have used descriptive analyses (frequencies, descriptives) and correlational tests (chi square) to relate variables to one another. We plan to use multiple regression, repeated measures/survival analyses, and possibly growth curve analyses for the longitudinal data.


We have documented the combination of financial and time constraints (personal and governmental such as unemployment or financial aid) can make committing to more than 1 year of post-secondary studies incredibly challenging for lower-income, first generation individuals. One published paper focused on low-income urban adolescents who were active in their community organizations and the important role of their college-student possible selves when understanding their engagement in academic strategy use. We also published a paper in the Journal of Career Development that illustrated via multiple case study the re-negotiations of career goals (e.g., from drafter to engineer) and educational pathways (e.g., from a one-year certificate to a four-year college degree) of working class adults in STEM fields, as well as a paper in the Journal of Adult Development that documented the important role of the past selves in college and career domains in understanding the return to college for adult learners. We also recently published a paper in Mentoring & Tutoring documenting the relationship between the context of mentoring and the functions of mentoring such that low-income urban youth that draw from mentoring across contexts are more likely to report both emotional and instrumental functions of mentoring, the latter being so important for college-going and career development. We have other findings regarding the workplace policies that make it more challenging and possible for employees who are trying to go to school while working with aid from their companies, and how one company is working to change the academic science curriculum of health science students in a low-income community, both in process of finding appropriate publication outlets. Ultimately, my student research team and I are working to document the complexity of these pathways taken by lower-income individuals toward STEM degrees and careers, the role of the workplace, higher education institutions, and governmental policies, and the ways in which mentoring and other supports can facilitate their success.

Publications & Presentations: 

Packard, B. W., Kim, G. J.*, Sicley, M.*, & Piontkowski, S.* (2009). Composition matters: Multi-context informal mentoring networks for low-income urban adolescent girls pursuing healthcare careers. Mentoring & Tutoring, 17(2), 187-200.

Packard, B. W., & Babineau, M. E.* (2009). From drafter to engineer, doctor to nurse: An examination of career compromise as renegotiated by working class adults over time. Journal of Career Development, 35(3), 207-227.

Vick, R. M.*, & Packard, B. W. (2008). Academic success strategy use among community-active urban Hispanic adolescents. Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences, 30 (4), 463-480.

Babineau, M. E.*, & Packard, B. W. (2006). The Pursuit of College in Adulthood: Reclaiming Past Selves or Constructing New? Journal of Adult Development, 13, 109-117.

Other Products: 

We are working on a college pathway resource for the web.