More than a dozen high school students walked toward the roar of cascading water at the Searsville Dam, excitedly pointing out a small delicate turkey tail mushroom, the blinking eyes of a bullfrog hiding under a leaf, and black beetles scurrying through the dirt at Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve – 'Ootchamin 'Ooyakma (JRBP'O'O).

Earlier in the day, Jared Garcia, a high school junior, peered curiously at several dried-out animal skulls sitting in the corner of a classroom at the preserve. It was the San Francisco teen’s first visit to Stanford as part of his Stanford Introduction to Bioengineering class at the June Jordan School for Equity, a public school in the Excelsior neighborhood of San Francisco.

“The class is a challenge, but I’ve always been up for a challenge,” Garcia said. “I’m learning new things and I’m happy with that.”

The students then went to campus, cautiously making their way through a bright white microbiome lab in the Shriram Center for Bioengineering and Chemical Engineering building where they observed instruments like a thermocycler and anaerobic chamber.

“The school is very prestigious and looking around, it’s more diverse than I thought it would be, and so far, everyone’s been really nice and welcoming,” Garcia said. “It’s inspirational, and it helps for students to see a different environment.”

Garcia intends to continue his education after high school, recognizing the value of this opportunity. A classmate once confided to Garcia that he would be unable to continue his education due to work and family obligations after graduation. This conversation made Garcia more aware of the privilege he has to advance his studies.

students assemble Foldscopes

Jared Garcia (right), a junior at the June Jordan School for Equity, assembles a Foldscope – a microscope made of paper. | Andrew Brodhead

Fostering futures

The class is part of a dual-credit course program run by Stanford Digital Education , a unit in the provost’s office promoting innovative learning opportunities benefiting the public good, and the nonprofit National Education Equity Lab, which brings Stanford and other top-tier university courses into Title I high schools serving low-income communities nationwide at no cost to the high schooler. The program began in 2021 and provides talented students in low-income communities with access to advanced material while encouraging them to apply to selective colleges.

This spring, the program offered Stanford’s Intro to Bioengineering course, which included a visit to JRBP'O'O and labs on campus, to two public schools in the Bay Area for the first time.

Drew Endy, associate professor of bioengineering, and Jenn Brophy, assistant professor of bioengineering, have previously taught a digital-only version of the Intro to Bioengineering class to high school students in states across the nation but were unable to bring students to campus due to distance, cost, and logistics – until now.

The courses are taught with a local high school teacher running the class along with a Stanford teaching fellow providing instruction via Zoom. The courses are largely the same as those taken by Stanford undergraduates, and if the high school students complete the course with a passing grade, they are awarded Stanford credits.

Bridging futures

Shreya Garg, ’24, is a bioengineering undergraduate and teaching fellow coordinator who helped design the virtual iteration of the Intro to Bioengineering course and led the students’ visit to JRBP'O'O and campus.

Garg didn’t have any engineering experience before coming to Stanford. “All those hands-on workshops are really what defined my experience and my journey to becoming a future engineer,” she said.

She wants to empower other young people to do the same. “I hope students, through these activities, are able to see themselves as engineers the way I did. Coming here shows them that this is a place for them. They can envision themselves here as a scientist, as an engineer, as whoever they want to be.”

At JRBP'O'O, Garg helped the high school students put together a Foldscope – a microscope made of paper – and showed them how to use it. Students oohed and aahed as Garg brought over a small stick with a banana slug for closer observation.

student holds branch with banana slug

Shreya Garg, ’24, a bioengineering undergraduate and teaching fellow coordinator, showed students a banana slug. | Andrew Brodhead

Science can often seem exclusive and intimidating, Garg said. “You have all these academic papers, all this jargon, all this fancy equipment that many places don’t have access to,” Garg explained. “Bringing as many people as we can into the field really takes apart that barrier to entry and levels the playing field a little bit.”

And diversifying science provides wide-reaching benefits, she added. “The more perspectives and backgrounds you can bring into science, the more people that our science can serve.”

Brian Johnson teaches science at June Jordan School and said that while the class rigor is much higher for his students, they seem to really enjoy it.

“Bioengineering is not something that they would normally have access to – whether at the school or even at the local community college,” Johnson said. “They’ve been able to see a new field of research they can get into and how it applies in their everyday life.”

Taking the course also allows them to picture themselves thriving at a place like Stanford, Johnson added. “They’ve been able to break out a bit more, and just say, ‘OK, I can get used to this. I can be here.’ This entire experience, hopefully, is just one small step in that direction for whatever it is that they want to do.”

students walk past oaks on Jasper Ridge trail

Students from the June Jordan School for Equity walk through the Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve – 'Ootchamin 'Ooyakma during a visit as part of their Stanford Introduction to Bioengineering class. | Andrew Brodhead

Sophomore Jake Lopez used his Foldscope to look at a small piece of a blue flower during their visit to JRBP'O'O. Lopez said he likes how interactive the class is and being out in nature. “You see things you don’t usually see in your everyday life, like the different types of flowers and the waterfall,” he explained.

“Even though it’s really early for us to think about college, coming here helps students think about options of where they could go for college,” Lopez added.

Alex Palileo is also a sophomore at June Jordan. It was her first time visiting Stanford, which she imagined was much further away, she said.

“I’ve learned a lot about topics that I wouldn’t normally learn in the classroom, and about how things actually benefit people and how we can use these things within our lives,” Palileo said. “I still don’t know what I want to do someday, but I find this experience really helpful.”