Be bold, be curious – UTS social justice program helps students to aim high

Photo: Fiona McGill

Photo: Fiona McGill

In summary: 
  • Students who are finding school life challenging for personal and social reasons are part of a research project aimed at promoting educational achievement.
  • The IMC Sky High! program works with students from more than a dozen western Sydney high schools to expose them to new experiences and ideas.

“What’s physiology? Has anyone heard that word?” asks science postgrad student Hayley.

Quick as a flash, the answer comes back. “It’s about the human body,” says a young girl.

As 30 young western Sydney high school students mill around lab benches in the UTS Science faculty, their mentors get down to business, attaching blood pressure cuffs to arms and electrodes to foreheads.

The students are soon learning the difference between systolic and diastolic pressure as the cuff tightens and loosens; others monitor what happens to their brain activity when they perform simple mental arithmetic.

The students are participants in IMC Sky High!, a two-year donor-funded social justice program for students in years 7 and 8 which is run as an action research project by the International Research Centre for Youth Futures at UTS.

It’s a long way from another ordinary day at school – in fact, for several students their visit to UTS is the first time they’ve travelled to the city.

Professor Rosemary Johnston, director of the centre and leader of the program, says schools choose students to take part because they are seen to have the potential for academic achievement but may be held back by a range of circumstances.

“We work closely with our participating schools to select students who will really benefit from exposure to new environments. Some students are finding school life challenging for complex and varied personal and social reasons,” says Professor Johnston.

“IMC Sky High! is a valuable way to support the great work teachers are doing and the aspirations parents have for their children. The program encourages students to complete their schooling, and is designed to grow literacy, participation, engagement and confidence.

“Our research into the program’s impact shows that exposing students to wider options and exciting ideas – and people – leads them to be bolder and more curious about their own potential.”

The research centre works with more than a dozen schools, but today’s visitors are from Ashcroft, St John’s Park and Cabramatta high schools. Their day also included a visit to the Data Arena in the Faculty of Engineering and IT.

Marianela Hernandez, a teacher at St John’s Park High School, says she is always striving to engage parents and the community to support the students in activities such as the Sky High initiative.

“A visit like this one to UTS is often a student’s first connection with a university because no one else in the family has gone on to higher education,” Hernandez says.

Quizzed about what they might do in the future, the students have a range of goals: zoology, says one; flight attendant, says another; join the army, says a third.

Dr Sara Loch, project development manager at the International Research Centre for Youth Futures, says students visit UTS with open eyes.

“We organise a program that is diverse and focused on the future. We cannot imagine the types of careers these young people will enter after school, but we do know that we want them to see themselves working or studying in areas that will bring life satisfaction,” says Dr Loch.

Dr Nicola Sinclair, the program’s event manager, says they are currently working with more than 150 students. “All of these young people will take different ideas from each workshop. Our aim is to open doors to the unexpected,” she says.

In coming months, the students will participate in a moot court in Hyde Park Barracks, attend a trial at the Downing Street law courts, attend a UTS music workshop, attend and participate in play readings at Riverside Theatre, spend a day cooking and learning about nutrition, go back stage at the Sydney Opera House, and learn about coding with employees in a large corporate city office.