This fall, young innovators who excel in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) will be matched with leading global scientists in the New York Academy of Science’s (NYAS) new Junior Academy of the Global STEM Alliance. Students will be given access to unique content and programming.

“This kind of high-level, elite mentoring will provide these students with once-in-a-lifetime opportunities,” says Dr. Mehmood Khan, vice chairman and chief scientific officer of Global Research & Development at PepsiCo. “We believe that the Junior Academy will have a direct impact on the numbers of students pursuing and securing careers in STEM-related fields in a few years.”

That belief, and PepsiCo’s commitment to supporting and promoting STEM education, led the PepsiCo Foundation to pledge $1 million to help create The Junior Academy, as part of the NYAS’ Global STEM Alliance. In the first phase of the 3-year grant, 250 secondary school students from underserved populations in the U.S. will be selected to participate in this newly created program, which is run on a social learning platform. These students will progress through a selection of curricula and challenges developed specifically for The Junior Academy. Over the grant’s three years, the goal is to significantly increase the number of students engaged and to expand globally.

Those who are selected will first spend several months completing online curricula, Research 101: Principles of STEM Research. They will work with peers across the world to learn the basics of scientific research questions, methodologies used to generate and test hypotheses, and essential elements of experiment design and data analysis. Expert instructors drawn from the ranks of graduate students, postdoctoral researchers and STEM professionals will provide guidance and structure to the students.

Following STEM “boot camp,” the students will embark upon a 60-day “PepsiCo Innovation Challenge,” focused on the problem of food loss, which will ask students to seek inventive ways to cut down on waste in the food chain, from production to household consumption. The students will research, design and work to identify solutions to this global problem, mentored by PepsiCo employees in various STEM functions.

Unlike other STEM programs, the Junior Academy allows the students flexibility through self-directed learning—and closely synchs their specific interests with an expert mentor.  This structure came from a set of interviews NYAS completed with Nobel Prize winners as they were building the program. “They all said, ‘I’ve worked hard because I’m passionate about my area of research, and it’s that passion that has driven me every day,’” says Meghan Groome, PhD, executive director of education at the Academy. “We realized that passion and engagement were more important than any other factor in terms of producing big, world-changing research. We knew that the Junior Academy needed to be based upon what students were passionate about.”

Interviews with students, in turn, revealed that students really want to use their STEM skills to solve real-world challenges, not just complete theoretical questions in a textbook. As a result, the innovation challenges were conceived.

Once the students have completed their challenge-related projects, a panel of experts will judge their proposed solutions. The winners will receive an all-expenses-paid trip to New York City to attend the annual Global STEM Alliance (GSA) summit. All Junior Academy participants will be able to participate in certain GSA programming and will be given opportunities to learn about internships and scholarships. They will also be offered a one-year complimentary membership in the NYAS, providing them with digital access to hundreds of scientific events. “Students will emerge from this program with a network of esteemed scientists at their disposal and a venerated institution’s credentials listed on their resumes,” Dr. Khan says.

The Junior Academy was created as a response to NYAS’s 2015 report, The Global STEM Paradox. It reveals an immense opportunity, reporting that a vast percent of available STEM jobs worldwide are going unfilled, that women represent less than 30 percent of the world’s scientific researchers and that, in the United States, minority groups represent only 10 percent of STEM workers. The Junior Academy is a part of the GSA, a new NYAS initiative that hopes to inspire a million children in more than 100 countries to become STEM leaders by 2020.

Sponsorship of The Junior Academy is just one part of PepsiCo and the PepsiCo Foundation’s participation in a series of initiatives aimed at engaging young people with food science through STEM. Look for more articles soon on those upcoming initiatives.