Local middle school students participate in STEM Saturday program

As electricity arced through the air, excited Mahanoy Area Middle School students reached for their phones, snapping pictures in the darkened physics lab at Penn State Schuylkill. Dr. Michael Gallis, associate professor of physics, had the full attention of the students as he challenged them to explore what they know about electricity during his presentation titled, "It's Electric." Dr. Gallis' program was one of four different sessions that was held during the Schuylkill ACHIEVE'S STEM Saturday, Nov. 7.

ACHIEVE, a designated Pennsylvania 21st Century Community Learning Center, is an after school program for students enrolled in fifth through eighth grade. Penn State Schuylkill partners with the Schuylkill Intermediate Unit 29 Schuylkill ACHIEVE program to offer the STEM Saturday program on campus.

Eighty middle school students from the Mahanoy, Minersville, Pottsville, Williams Valley, and Pine Grove Area school districts participated in the day's events. Accompanied by their teachers, the students remained grouped by district, and attended two chosen sessions each that were designed to be focused on a component of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), as well as educational and entertaining.

Mahanoy area students, many of whom are just starting to become excited about STEM focused programming, lined up in Gallis' classroom for a chance to feel a shock from a Van Der Graaf generator. Afterward, they were able to try some hands-on experiments, including a study of electric charge using tape and an electroscope.

Students also attended "Chemistry in (Re) Action!" with Nancy Schorschinsky, instructor in chemistry, where they created a redox reaction, and a combustion reaction using methane, the latter of which was a particular hit with the students.

There were a lot of interested questions from students during the sessions. They also expressed how much they were enjoying the program, and how much they were learning. "I seriously didn't think science was this fun," said Ariel Molina, an eighth grade Mahanoy Area student. "I feel pretty lucky to be here." Molina's classmate, Darrell Sippie, added that they typically don't do many chemistry experiments, or see chemical reactions in school. "I realized that you can actually have fun with science, but still be learning," said Sippie. Seventh-grader James Leary was happy to experience what college is like, and it sparked his interest in Penn State Schuylkill.

According to Lisa Broomell, federal program coordinator and sixth grade English language arts teacher at Mahanoy Area, "They're extremely excited, and completely engaged in what's going on. I just think this is an awesome opportunity to be exposed to STEM."

Dr. Elinor Madigan, assistant professor of information sciences and technology (IST), in collaboration with several Schuylkill campus IST students, presented "Animation Creation with MIT Scratch," which is an activity where students write an entire game program. When they were finished, they were given flash drives so they could take the game home. Madigan said some of the children had used similar technology before, but it was a new experience for others. "There are some amazing young people in there," Dr. Madigan said. "They have really great skills."

Dr. Rod Heisey, professor of biology, hosted "Creatures Great and Small" with lab supervisor Andrea Solinski. The students worked with a range of creatures, from the microscopic organisms that live inside of termites, to Madagascar hissing cockroaches and tarantulas.

Solinski explained that this event is geared toward helping to make STEM areas of study more approachable and attainable, particularly if students appear to be intimidated by STEM areas. "This is something they can do," Solinski said.

Matt Butensky, data analyst for Schuylkill ACHEIVE, said students love coming to the event at Penn State Schuylkill because they get to utilize the campus facilities, such as the science labs, which some of the schools districts do not have. They also enjoy the college atmosphere, and the opportunity to learn from the campus faculty. Barb Naradko, director of community-based programs for the Schuylkill Intermediate Unit 29, agreed that STEM Saturday exposes the students to the idea of education beyond high school.

According to Shannon Del Conte, coordinator of Continuing Education, Penn State Schuylkill, STEM Saturday is important because it exposes local middle school students to areas of STEM, it provides them with an opportunity to see the campus facilities, and it highlights campus faculty and their research.  The campus has been hosting a STEM Saturday program at least once a year for several years, and have even held the event twice a year when additional ACHIEVE funding was available. The faculty develop their sessions to be hands-on to keep the children engaged, and because of the popularity of the program, and the fact that some of the children may have attended in previous years, the faculty will change session topics every year.

"We want to be sure we are providing them a different experience every time they come," said Del Conte. "The most important part is making youth aware of how interesting the sciences can be."