Schuylkill IU 29: Planting the Seeds of Interest in STEM Fields

 The term STEM has become a buzzword for the critical need to equip students with the science, technology, engineering, and math skills needed in the 21st century economy.

Schuylkill IU 29 believes that early exposure to the broad range of STEM disciplines -- physics, astronomy, renewable energy, chemistry, design, biology -- helps students focus their academics on the areas that intrigue them.

In 2012 and 2013, IU 29 partnered with Penn State Schuylkill to sponsor STEM Saturday, a day-long immersion in STEM workshops for fifth through eighth graders from four school districts in 2013 and 10 school districts in 2012. At the Schuylkill Penn State campus, students were treated to demonstrations and lessons presented by Penn State professors.

The event is part of IU 29’s year-round after-school program, funded with a federal 21st Century Community Learning Center grant. The IU cultivates community partners to bring added resources and help stretch limited funds, giving school districts educational offerings that they couldn’t otherwise provide.

STEM Saturday is free for participating school district students enrolled in the 21st CCLC Afterschool Program – even the Penn State professors volunteered their time for the day -- but the value districts get in return is the exposure of students to “new thoughts and ideas,” says Matt Butensky, 21st Century Community Learning Center program coordinator at IU 29.

Not all students will become scientists or mathematicians, but encountering STEM concepts in middle school-aged students helps to “catch them before they make decisions on placement in any sort of high school track,” such as business, academic, or vocational, Butensky says.

“STEM areas are found in most of those tracks -- even the business track,” he says. “This is a unique experience for students, who get to work with Penn State professors who are really experts in their fields.”
STEM Saturday also introduces middle-schoolers to a college campus, perhaps seeding their interest in post-secondary studies after high school.

“At the end of the day, these students are better informed of science opportunities,” says Butensky. “They have been exposed to different fields. And they are able to walk away with a first-hand campus experience.”


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