At the first NIEHS-hosted STEMposium, more than 150 students and teachers shared their year-long projects with government researchers, industry representatives, and fellow educators. The May 3 symposium capped a larger, growing project by the WakeEd Partnership to enhance science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education throughout Wake County.
Dignitaries on hand included North Carolina Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson, J.D., and Jim Merrill, Ed.D., superintendent of Wake County Public School System (WCPSS). Merrill, a former teacher, stressed the value of engaging students. "Once you get students engaged, they take ownership of their learning," he said.
Merrill was enthusiastic about the student displays, inspired by their teachers' SummerSTEM experiences. "Really advanced work and advanced thinking," he said of the projects lining the first-floor lobby and hallways of the main NIEHS building.
Celebrating real-world projects
SummerSTEM arranges immersion experiences in research and technology sites across the region, and includes time for teachers to develop lesson plans. "In 2013, we had a vision for an immersion experience of getting teachers out of the classroom to discuss career opportunities for our students and help answer the question 'Why are we taking this class?'" explained Steve Parrott, president of WakeEd Partnership.
"That vision became a reality in a short period of time as we began to combine training for project-based learning, STEM immersion, and exposure to applied STEM fields into an eight-day program," he continued. "The outcome was a real-world learning experience for students and new lessons that can be shared with teachers who have not gone through the experience."
In 2015, the first year of SummerStem, 50 secondary teachers had immersions at six STEM companies. The news spread quickly. "We had companies contacting us [to participate]," said Parrott.
In 2016, it grew to include 100 K-12 teachers from 40 schools and 11 immersion sites. That same year, it was nationally recognized for excellence in public-private partnerships by the US 2020 initiative, and by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
This summer, 20 companies, including all of the original partners, will host 200 teachers from 50 schools.
"I felt like a kid on a field trip," said Kate Newkirk, a kindergarten teacher at Hunter Elementary. She was on hand to help explain her students' project on monarch butterflies and milkweed plants. She said her trip to BASF Corporation and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency gave her a more global view of the project, and that helped her to expand and make it more accessible to the students.
On the other end of the educational spectrum was Leslie Lamberth, a teacher at Leesville Road High. "[The experience] gave us the drive to ask how we can prepare our students to be better employees," she said.
The teachers were also challenged to collaborate with other educators at their schools – usually in a subject other than science – to encompass many subjects in lesson plans that can be shared with teachers across the county.
"Developing lesson plans centered around problem-based learning is no small task," explained Huei-Chen Lao, Ph.D., from the NIEHS Office of Science Education and Diversity (OSED). Lao coordinates the NIEHS portion of SummerSTEM experiences. "Sharing these lesson plans helps to increase the feasibility and sustainability of the program," she continued. "We would like to see this create a snowball effect and become a movement to enhance STEM education."
Projects on display ranged from high school students tackling engineering problems involving vibrations caused by helicopter rotors, to kindergarten biology projects, such as studying the effictiveness of composting.
"My favorite part of the project was getting to come up with what we wanted to study," said one fourth grade student. Her group looked at what medium plants grow best in – to prepare for colonization of Mars. Her teacher explained that the kids chose what they would test and were encouraged to fail and learn why something did not work.
Students also learned larger life skills to help prepare them for a broad range of careers. One sixth grade student said he had to become more organized through this project and was able to take the organizing skills and apply them to other subjects. An elementary student described a lesson familiar to anyone working in a laboratory. "We had to figure out how to share the work and what each person was good at."
(Cody Nichols, Ph.D., is an Intramural Research Training Award fellow in the NIEHS Genetics, Environment, and Respiratory Disease Group.)