Environmental Factor

Environmental Factor

Your Online Source for NIEHS News

June 2018

STEMposium highlights outcomes of teacher immersion

Lao and Reid Lao, left, and OSED Director Ericka Reid, Ph.D., lead NIEHS involvement in SummerSTEM. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

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.

teacher and students Teachers described both the summer immersion experience and how they translated that into year-long projects. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Award-winning program

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.
Parrot, Jensen, and Domenico From right, Parrot, Jensen, and Domenico described SummerSTEM immersion, the year-long PBL in classrooms, and the growing popularity of the program. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

“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.

Environmental education

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.

teachers from Wake Forest High School Teachers from Wake Forest High School spent a week at Wake Technical Community College, NIEHS, and EPA, then guided their students in proposing solutions for current pollution challenges. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

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.

Project-based learning

student developing a display A final challenge for students was developing displays by using boards, photos, diagrams, laptops, tablets, models, and more, which provided yet another learning opportunity. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

“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.)


Parrot listening to a student “Pollution can get into your water and make you sick,” said one student. “I used to think it was just trash, like plastic bags.” Parrot, second from right, and others visibly enjoyed hearing kids describe their projects. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)
Amon and student Amon described the pollinator garden (see sidebar) to a STEMposium participant. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)
teacher and student showing display Many displays showcased the ingenuity that teachers and students are known for. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)
students visiting other displays Students in attendance circulated among the other projects on display, continuing the learning and sharing between schools. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)
Joyner Magnet Elementary School kindergartners These articulate kindergartners described the maps, models, and brochures they made so newcomers to Joyner Magnet Elementary School could easily find their way around. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)
student explaining his project Those children who were able to accompany their teachers to STEMposium readily explained their projects, what they achieved, and what they learned. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)
program planners and children Program planners provided suggested questions for attendees to ask the children, to spark conversations about their learning experiences. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)
Back To Top