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STEP-UP supports students with disabilities in pursuing their goals for employment and greater independence.

Since 2012, STEP-UP students have contributed to several of USGS’s science mission areas concentrating on at-risk data. Even more, they have acquired skills that have helped many of them achieve their goals of employment and greater independence. While there is no promise that STEP-UP students will be offered employment by USGS, seven STEP-UP students have been hired at National Center in Reston, Virginia, and another two have been hired in California and Utah. The USGS has done so under the Federal Government’s Schedule A authority for hiring individuals with disabilities.

Overall, of the STEP-UP students with known employment outcomes, 57% have found employment either with USGS or other organizations. (The rate was 64% prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, when the job market was more favorable.) This is significant given the persistently high national rate of unemployment among persons with disabilities.

Here are just a few examples of student successes:

Kevin Kim and the Well Pad Identification Project

Kevin Kim
STEP-UP graduate and USGS employee Kevin Kim  (public domain)

Kevin Kim, digitized over 18,000 gas, oil, and water well pads in ArcGIS, helping USGS evaluate the ecological impacts of energy development in the Williston Basin. His work was considered so integral to the project that he is listed as co-author on the resulting publication.

Kevin is now a valued USGS employee. Details of his story were included in a feature piece on STEP-UP produced by KQED Radio and distributed on National Public Radio’s Here and Now.

Chesapeake Bay Watershed Datasets Project

Five other students have been listed as coauthors on data releases. Zachary Duren digitized over 6,000 polygon datasets representing spatial changes through time in poultry houses and irrigation systems on the Delmarva Peninsula. Next, using the USDA’s National Agriculture Imagery Program’s 2016 and 2017 products, Nathaniel Rosenbloom, Anastashia King, Warren Li, and Alfred Dinh digitized 1,710 polygons representing small bodies of water (ponds) within 500 meters of those poultry feeding operations. The data were created to support avian epidemiology research by the USGS Chesapeake Bay Studies program to investigate disease transmission risk of migratory birds to farms.

Bird-Scan Project

Over the past few years, both current and former STEP-UP students who are now part-time employees, have scanned and catalogued more than 750,000 sheets of bird banding data, of an estimated 1.5 million—that’s more than 40 four-drawer filing cabinetfuls! With no funding available to digitize the records, the data would have remained in a largely inaccessible format; they are now available for use by scientists studying biodiversity and migration.  

Lily Smith and the Data Rescue Project at the Utah Water Science Center

The Utah Water Science Center’s Data Rescue Project is preserving water quality and surface water data  dating back to the 1890s. STEP-UP students have supported it by converting analog stream discharge measurement reports into digital form. Since 2018, the students have scanned more than 75,000 individual pages totaling almost 65,000 discharge measurements from 390 current and discontinued stations throughout Utah.

STEP-UP graduate and USGS employee Lily Smith
STEP-UP graduate and USGS employee Lily Smith (public domain)

One of the students, Lily Smith, said on her first day at USGS, “I’m going to work here some day!”  And that’s just what she did. After doing outstanding work as a STEP-UP trainee, an opportunity arose for her to become a part-time employee in July 2019. Since then, she alone has scanned close to 40,000 pages, reducing the initial time frame for completion of this portion of the project. Lily says she enjoys working at USGS, noting, “It’s a job that requires a lot of patience and takes someone who enjoys doing the same work over and over.”

In an interview, a coworker stated, “I can’t emphasize enough the contribution she has made to the Data Rescue Project. Because of Lily’s hard work, it is likely that we will have all the discharge measurements stored in our office scanned by the end of the year.” Her mom said, “Lily has gained so much confidence in herself. As a new employee of USGS she feels like part of a team and likes all the people she works with. She feels like she is doing something very important for her work.”  Lily’s supervisor agreed, “The work that Lily is doing is important and long lasting, plus it is a pleasure having her happy attitude around the office.”

Lily’s new work experience as well as her personal and professional growth, demonstrate students in local school-to-work transition programs can successfully gain meaningful and resume-building experiences in a federal STEM environment.