SNOW HILL — Middle school students in Worcester County got the opportunity last week to attend a five-day Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) preview academy at Worcester Technical High School (WTHS) that touched on five of the main pillars of STEM education.

Organizers of the STEM WOW (WTHS Outreach Week) academy hope that the program will spark in interest in rising eighth graders, who will then decide to pursue STEM through high school and beyond.

Diana Stulz, coordinator of instruction for career and technology education (CTE) for county schools, underlined the importance of STEM and the unique approach Worcester is beginning to develop to encourage an evolving education for students.

“Nobody talks about what happened in history to create the science and how do we link all of that together … think of the student,” said Stulz. “If you can make those connections think how much more exciting it can be.”

Last week’s STEM WOW program sought to illustrate to students exactly how those connections are made. The academy featured a five-day rotation where the 53 participating students spent one day on each topic. The subjects were Biomedical Science, Pre-Engineering, Alternative Energy, Interactive Media Production (IMP) and Curriculum for Agriculture Science Education (CASE).

All of the programs were built to be organic and practical, according to Marlyn Barrett, coordinator of instruction for science.

“Since eighth graders have to identify their CTE pathway-interest for their high school freshman year, we thought the STEM WOW program could help students make more informed decisions about their program of choice,” she said.

In Biomedical, students learned about DNA and genetics and during the day extracted DNA from strawberries, which they were able to take home. Pre-engineering focused on patterns and structure, with students designing their own puzzle cubes, each one entirely unique to its maker.

“We completely design it,” said Stephen Decatur Middle School student Elliot Rush.

By taking the lesson away from a lecture and lettings students embrace it hands-on, Barrett said that the skills develop faster and last longer.

“Many students struggle with patterns,” said Barrett.  “Instead of lecturing about patterns and showing the students a few examples, this STEM activity requires that students work with patterns that they create.  It links math to what they are doing.  Just like the cube puzzle is multi-dimensional, so is the teaching and learning.”

Alternative Energy is a new but quickly growing subject, said Stulz, and touches on everything from solar power to wind to basic energy conservation.

“One of their first projects was going through the building, looking at energy use in the building. And the kids said that we don’t need all of those lights in the front hallway; we have all of this natural light,” she said. “And they were able to measure how much light was there and how many lights they were able to turn out and still keep enough light in the building.”

That initial assessment of WTHS ended up saving the school 7 percent on its energy bill with the expectation that those savings could rise to 10 percent.

During STEM WOW, students built wind-gages and learned about the future of alternative energy. SDMS student Mihail Beja said that the program immediately caught his eye.

“I am interested in architectural engineering, but after this experience, I especially liked alternative energy,” he said.  

IMP leans heavily on the technology side of STEM by promoting computer skills.

“What they do in interactive media is they start with a green screen, they put a picture of themselves on the green screen and then they Photoshop in a background and then they Photoshop in an effect,” said Barrett.

The final program previewed during STEM WOW, CASE, took students out into the greenhouse to learn about nature and how pollen works to spread plant life. All of the skills learned during the week align with Worcester’s goals of supplying practical, real-world education that isn’t just quoted from a textbook, according to Superintendent of Schools Dr. Jerry Wilson.

“This type of teaching and learning is a desired outcome of the Common Core,” said Wilson.  “The approach stresses collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity – skills that lead to success in college and career.”

By giving rising eighth graders a sampling of the programs at WTHS, Stulz noted that they will be better prepared to decide if they want to take classes at the school once they reach ninth grade. The academies are already very popular and can fill quickly, but there is a push to keep expanding them if interest remains high.

“We’ve expanded pre-engineering and we’ve expanded Bio Med for those reasons. And as our programs grow we hope to be able to accommodate that,” Stulz said. “So there’s usually a period of time where we can’t take everyone so we do an application process and what we’re most interested in is the student’s enthusiasm.”