Penn State EnvironMentors awarded top honors at National Science Fair

Students reflect on the opportunity to network and share their successes
A student presents a scientific poster to a person

Malachi Mitchell presents findings of his research project: "The Most Gullible Element is Easily Lead: Comparing Detectable Lead Content in Boalsburg, PA and University Park, PA." Mitchell, an eighth-grade student and part of Penn State's 2024 EnvironMentors cohort, won the community impact award at the EnvironMentors National Science Fair.

Credit: Imagine Photography D.C

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Students from Penn State's 2023-24 EnvironMentors cohort were honored with first- and second-place overall awards, plus the community impact award, at the EnvironMentors National Science Fair and Awards Ceremony on June 3. The event, held at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, was the highlight of a four-day trip to Washington, D.C.  

Penn State's EnvironMentors chapter, housed within Penn State Sustainability, partners high school students from districts throughout Pennsylvania with faculty and undergraduate student mentors in science, technology, engineering and Math (STEM) to plan and conduct environmental research projects. The national program, developed by the Global Council for Science and the Environment (GCSE), aims to make college accessible for underrepresented high school students.  

“I was so proud to see the program’s middle and high school STEM research protégés acknowledged for all their hard work,” said Lorraine Jones, interim program manager for Penn State’s EnvironMentors chapter. “It’s a testament to their resilience, talent and commitment, defying odds and breaking barriers in fields where they have historically been underrepresented. Seeing them shine on a national stage validates their dedication and the support of Penn State faculty and undergraduate mentors who have nurtured their growth. This victory is not just a win for the students but a significant milestone for their mentors and the entire Penn State community.” 

Elsie Umbel, a senior at State College High School who won second place, said she appreciated the opportunity to conduct hands-on lab research, but especially “the chance to present my hard work to an audience who cares,” she said. “I was so grateful to be recognized for what I accomplished while making a real impact on the environment.” 

Raiyan Bakshi, a junior at Hershey High School who took first place at the ceremony, said that EnvironMentors was valuable for creating STEM community. “Throughout the course of this program, I was able to build up a network of connections with educated and knowledgeable people across many different specialties that I will be able to utilize to collaborate in the future.” 

While in D.C., the group took a riverboat ride on the Potomac to learn about water quality and the history of the river, visited the Capitol and other national monuments, and had plenty of time to socialize.  

Jones said the trip provided students numerous opportunities to connect with others in STEM fields, from speed-networking with professionals such as environmental scientists and lawyers, to talking with influential people about career and educational opportunities in STEM and sustainable policies and practices.  

One of the event’s panelists, Tyrin Todd, is a senior at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) majoring in AI and computer science. Todd, who was part of Penn State’s first EnvironMentors cohort, is also who initially drew Lorraine Jones to the program as a volunteer — he’s her son. 

“Seeing Ty, a former EnvironMentors high school mentee, now as a thriving senior at MIT and co-founder of a successful start-up, is incredibly rewarding and inspiring,” Jones said. “It’s a powerful reminder of the impact and importance of mentorship and the potential it unlocks in the minds of those who have traditionally been marginalized in STEM. Ty's journey exemplifies the extraordinary heights our mentees can achieve with the right guidance and support. It was a full-circle moment to have him there, engaging and encouraging students while celebrating the Penn State EnvironMentors team's victory in the National Science Fair once again.” 

Dawn Johnson, a third-year student at Penn State University Park studying biology with a concentration in neuroscience, served as an undergraduate mentor in the program this year. She described EnvironMentors as “a gateway to an opportunity outside of a student’s normal school day to elicit more curiosity about the world they live in, and to openly invite them to contribute to it."  

Johnson applauded the leadership provided by Lorraine Jones and the EnvironMentors team during the entire mentorship experience.

“Lorraine always went above and beyond for both mentors and students,” she said. “Not only is she extremely supportive but she is also very accommodating, patient, and a fearless advocate for every individual who participates in the program. Her efforts to keep the program running while simultaneously checking in with every mentorship team to ensure their needs were being met and acknowledged were immensely appreciated.” 

Jones said that she focuses on building relationships and trust, knowing that students who are involved in the program tell other students about their great experience, and that families of participating students are telling other families how much she cares. 

Janelle Mitchell is a parent of three students who were part of the program this year.

“EnvironMentors has been an incredible opportunity for my children, especially as Black youth,” she said. “My eighth-grade son, Malachi, had a remarkable experience, receiving a community impact award at the national level. This achievement is a testament to the program's ability to expose students of color to diverse academic paths in STEM. The mentors and staff, who were fantastic, played a significant role in guiding my boys through the research process, teaching them how to prepare graphs and document their findings. I am proud and grateful for the EnvironMentors program, and we eagerly anticipate participating again next year.” 

For Dawn Johnson, recommending the program to others is a given. “I encourage them to get involved if they can because I know that the program is special,” Johnson added. “I am eternally grateful to Lorraine Jones for welcoming me into this wonderful community, as well as never failing to demonstrate her own commitment by dedicating her time and heart to the EnvironMentors mission.” 

Zhiyi Xu, a junior at State College High School, summed up the experience: “EnvironMentors is the program where I feel heard and like I belong.” 

Penn State’s EnvironMentors program, currently available at the Schuylkill, Shenango, Harrisburg and University Park campuses, is now recruiting faculty and sponsors for next year’s cohort. For more information or to support or partner with the program, please contact Lorraine Jones: [email protected] or [email protected].