The success of 2017 SummerSTEM, a professional development program for Wake County public school teachers, was celebrated May 2 at the second NIEHS-hosted STEMposium. This year’s STEMposium hosted 100 teachers and some of their students, who presented their year-long projects with government researchers, industry representatives, and fellow educators in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).
“We are happy to once again host this wonderful event,” said NIEHS organizer Huei-Chen Lao, from the Office of Science Education and Diversity (OSED). “It’s great to see so many students, teachers, and visitors here.”
Rodbell Auditorium and lobby were packed with displays staffed by students and teachers sharing their work with attendees. Projects included studies of weather, travel blogs for children, maps to help newcomers find their way around a school, and many more.
In 2017, SummerSTEM won the National US2020 STEM Mentoring Award for excellence in public-private partnerships. The program is run by the nonprofit WakeEd Partnership.
Several local dignitaries were on hand for the event.
- Steve Parrott, president of the WakeEd Partnership.
- Stephanie Jensen, WakeEd board chair elect and director of professional and specialty solutions at BASF.
- Paul Domenico, director of curriculum enhancement programs for the Wake County Public Schools System (WCPSS) Magnet Office.
“We have way too many toys in our backyard to not be playing with them,” Domenico said, referring to the abundance of STEM expertise in the Research Triangle area of North Carolina. STEM businesses and organizations provide a rich resource for SummerSTEM’s goal of encouraging project-based learning (PBL).
Teaching all ages
WCPSS educators, representing all levels from kindergarten through 12th grade, spent five days in the summer of 2017 immersed in area STEM businesses and organizations. “SummerSTEM has been amazing,” said Elizabeth Propp from Lincoln Heights Magnet Elementary School. “We have developed an ambitious project that we hope can incorporate all grade levels [at our school].”
Many host organizations combined teachers from several grade levels. For example, NIEHS partnered with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which shares the campus, to host educators at the middle and high school levels. Another combo immersion, between Syngenta and BASF, immersed elementary and middle school educators. Both immersion experiences involved current topics in health and the environment.
Samantha Pantrelli, from Wake Forest High School, developed a project in which her students proposed solutions to a current pollution crisis. They used up-to-date scientific publications and were encouraged to interact with active scientific researchers as they developed their solutions. Pantrelli said she enjoyed her immersion experience so much that she told her students she was felt like she was at Disneyland while she attended the STEMposium.
Students at Wake Forest Middle School designed and built sustainable home and building models with the goal of creating a community that would attract the new Amazon second headquarters to the Research Triangle Park area. In a related project, students at Davis Drive Middle School worked to determine ideal geographic locations for a business to place its headquarters.
“Our teachers need to go out and [have] an authentic experience,” Domenico said, explaining the strategy of SummerSTEM. “If we invest our time in our teachers, they can, in turn, have that experience with their students.”
The PBL approach to learning aims to create an environment where students can deepen their knowledge by exploring real-world problems. Each year, SummerSTEM starts by immersing educators in hands-on professional development opportunities so they can bring real-world problems into their classrooms.
In only three years, SummerSTEM has grown from 6 to 20 host organizations. It has now served 238 teachers in 66 schools. This growth in participation by local industry and organizations is multiplying the impact of SummerSTEM by allowing more teachers to participate.
“I hope that opportunities like this can be catalytic events for teachers and students to get excited about science and transform their lives,” said NIEHS Deputy Director Rick Woychik, Ph.D.
(Kirsten Hoff, Ph.D., is an Intramural Research Training Award fellow in the NIEHS Mitochondrial DNA Replication Group.)