Jahnik Kurukulasuriya spends a lot of time in the lab. At 17, the Pittsburgh Allderdice High School junior has made nucleotide sequences that could help detect cancerous cell lineages.

Earlier this month, Kurukulasuriya dragged himself away from his research to visit Washington for the White House Summit on Next Generation High Schools. The initiative supports efforts to reinvent the high school experience, including incorporating more applied learning, “maker” projects, partnerships with colleges, and science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) curricula aimed at underrepresented students. At the summit, Kurukulasuriya was among a handful of students selected to present their academic work to educators, industry leaders, and philanthropists.

Kurukulasuriya is clearly no stranger to interactive STEM learning. After his normal school day ends, he spends two to three hours at the UPMC Magee-Womens Research Institute. He landed the lab gig through a new class on real-world science research at his high school, a Pittsburgh Public School (PPS) with a partial engineering magnet program. Students have the unusual opportunity to find a lab that aligns with their interests and work alongside professional scientists.

PPS STEAM Coordinator Shaun Tomaszewski and Jahnik Kurukulasuriya visit the White House. Photo/Shaun Tomaszewski

Kurukulasuriya’s interest in science was sparked by early experiences at school. As a kid he labored on science fair projects, thrilled by the opportunity to showcase his work. But research shows that few teenagers in America are lucky enough to have experiences like Kurukulasuriyas’s. According to the Office of Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education, one-fourth of public high schools with the highest percentage of black and Latino students do not offer Algebra II, and one-third do not offer chemistry, let alone opportunities to do cancer research.

In recent years, the public and private sectors have called attention to this STEM gap and are working to close it.

The public-private Next-Generation High School initiative that brought Kurukulasuriya to Washington injects more than $375 million nationally into campuses that lack funding for STEM programs, and urges other schools to expand their offerings. Included in the multifaceted program are $20 million in federal Investing in Innovation grants for low-income schools, and guidebooks from the Department of Education on how to redesign high schools to promote equity and STEM learning. A number of private foundations are also increasing support for existing and new schools.

In Pittsburgh local schools and out-of-school programs have responded to the White House’s call to “redesign” high school and promote STEM. In conjunction with the summit, the White House recognized Kickstarting Making, a partnership between the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh and Kickstarter that helped regional schools crowd-fund impressive makerspaces.

And Kurukulasuriya’s is not the only PPS campus to introduce new STEM programming. The district’s STEAM coordinator, Shaun Tomaszewski also went to the White House Summit. On the heels of the opening of three schools newly focused on STEAM (that’s “Arts” in addition to STEM), PPS has launched its STEAM Mini-Grant Program. Educators across the city have received $2,500 awards from the Grable Foundation to design innovative projects for their students. In one project, Pittsburgh Allegheny elementary school students will “grow a meal” by planting a garden, harvesting the vegetables, and making a salad. At Perry Traditional Academy, high school students will write, shoot, and edit a documentary about their communities with professional filmmakers.

In the spring cycle, students who think up engaging STEAM curricula for their younger peers will also be eligible for the mini grants, which could climb to $7,500.

The inclusion of students in the grant program is part of a PPS push to support students in taking charge of their own education. Kurukulasuriya and his classmates are a testament to the power of adult-supported, student-driven STEM education.

“A lot of kids go to school, come home, and aren’t super excited to learn,” the junior said. “One of the things I’ve seen in science research class is all the kids get really excited about what they’re doing, because they get to pick the project themselves, find a lab, and have our teacher approach that lab on their behalf.”

For Kurukulasuriya, the hands-on experience has helped confirm that he would like to pursue science education and possibly a career in a related field.

The hope is that with a fortified emphasis on STEM in schools, Kurukulasuriya will no longer be an exception.