Youth and Education in Science


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What it is || How it works || Recognition || Highlights || 2018-19 Expansion || Projects || Accomplishments


What is STEP-UP?

Across the nation, the U. S. Geological Survey has established partnerships with several school districts that have work transition programs for students with cognitive and other disabilities.  It's known as STEP-UP (Secondary Transition to Employment Program - USGS Partnership).  Through the partnership, this special population of students (ages 18-22) volunteer at USGS to gain valuable job skills to support their goals of seeking employment and living independently.

Many of the students are on the autism spectrum and are particularly skilled at completing repetitive tasks with accuracy, precision, and close attention to detail—an invaluable asset for a science agency.  The students' efforts preserve critical data and make it more accessible. As they are volunteers, they provide assistance at little cost to the Bureau.  Overall, it's a win-win for both students and scientists alike. 

How It Works

Reston STEP-UP Participants

Reston STEP-UP participants with USGS Director Jim Reilly

  • School districts and other educational institutions reach out to local public- and private-sector businesses to identify volunteer opportunities where students can gain job skills and experience in a professional work environment.
  • The students, in concert with their teachers, select work sites in which they have an interest and that are in-line with students’ individual development plans, which are created collaboratively by students, parents, and teachers to help students attain their employment goals.  USGS is one of these sites.
  • As part of their school district’s or institution’s programs, STEP-UP students can volunteer part-time up to 5 days/week. While USGS supervisors direct the work, an onsite teacher or job coach supports the student's daily activities. While students are located at only a handful of sites, they can work on projects for science centers across the nation when data can be sent to them or accessed remotely.
  • While there is no promise that STEP-UP volunteers will be offered employment by USGS, eight STEP-UP students have been hired at National Center in Reston and another has been hired at the Utah Water Science Center. USGS has done so under Schedule A authority for hiring individuals with disabilities. This positive outcome, unparalleled with Fairfax County Public Schools’ (FCPS’s) other business partners, resulted in the Foundation for FCPS recognizing USGS as its 2018 Workforce Development Partner of the Year.

Recognition of STEP-UP

STEP-UP has had a huge impact on both the students and USGS. Students have gained job and social skills, improving their ability to secure employment and increasing their future financial independence. Meanwhile, USGS has benefited from both the students' work output and their contributions to making the Bureau's workforce more dynamic and inclusive. The partnership also has been highlighted by National Public RadioDeseret News, and the local ABC-TV affiliate in Washington, DC.  

STEP-UP students from Palo Alto Unified School District

STEP-UP students from Palo Alto Unified School District receive certificates of appreciation.

Highlights from the 2017-18 School Year

STEP-UP has grown significantly since USGS began its partnership with Fairfax County Public Schools in 2012.  During the 2017-18 school year, an all-time high of 34 students worked on a wide variety of projects, especially ones involving the preservation of valuable at-risk data. Of those students, 15 from to two Fairfax County high schools--Chantilly and South Lakes--volunteered at the National Center in Reston, VA.  

In January 2018 we replicated the program at our Menlo Park, CA, campus where 14 students from four school districts in Santa Clara County served.  Moreover, we have partnered with the International Association for Geoscience Diversity and the Disabled Student Services offices at the University of Cincinnati. There five students digitized paper records dealing with animal mortality from USGS’s National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, WI.

Expansion in 2018-19

In August 2018, USGS expanded STEP-UP to the Denver Federal Center, where nine students from Jefferson County Public Schools are volunteering. In September, students from the Granite School District in Salt Lake City began working on a project with our Utah Water Science Center, and in November three students in the Monterey Peninsula (California) Unified School District began remotely supporting our Western Ecological Research Center's San Francisco Bay Estuary Field Station. Nationwide, a total of 50 students participated in STEP-UP in 2018-19.

Projects Supported by STEP-UP Students

STEP-UP students have been engaged in a number of projects including the following:

STEP-UP Student Sean

A STEP-UP student sorting foraminifera under a microscope.

  • High-resolution scanning of publications at USGS’s National Center Library
  • Sorting & counting of foram (microfossils)
  • Identifying species in photos taken by trail cameras
  • Cataloging rock cuttings
  • Processing soil samples in a laser particle size analyzer
  • Digitizing field notebooks and geo-locating data in ArcGIS
  • Identifying broken links to products listed on the USGS Map Store’s web page
  • Researching and authoring Twitter tweets based on USGS ecosystems research publications
  • Assisting USGS’s Tier II Help Desk

Notable Accomplishments

Since the program began, STEP-UP students have contributed to USGS's science mission in over a dozen areas concentrating on at-risk data.  Here are just two examples:

    Bird-Banding Records Project

    • Over the past few years, STEP-UP students have digitized over 500,000 paper records of banded birds. With no funding available to digitize the records, the data would have remained in a largely inaccessible; they are now available for use by scientists studying biodiversity and migration.*  
    Kevin Kim

    STEP-UP graduate and USGS employee Kevin Kim.


    • Of the 14 students who worked on the project and have aged out the program, 5 were hired by USGS and 4 found employment elsewhere in part due to the skills they learned at USGS, (One additional student, who has not yet aged out of the program, has also been hired elsewhere.) 

    Well Pad Identification Project

    • One of the students who worked on the bird-banding project, Kevin Kim, also digitized over 21,000 oil 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.



    *Previously, STEP-UP had reported that students working on this project had done work similar to that of contractors and did so with a remarkable error rate.  Upon further review, we found that this information was erroneous.  


    Christopher Hammond

    Program Manager, STEP-UP
    U. S. Geological Survey
    Phone: 703-648-6621

    Eleanour Snow

    Manager, Youth and Education Programs
    U. S. Geological Survey
    Phone: 703-648-6647