U.Va. researchers partner with Charlottesville schools to promote STEM education

Collaboration to help empower middle and high schoolers, create avenues for learning

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Partnerships between the University and local schools provide increased STEM experiences and education for K-12 students.

Richard Dizon | Cavalier Daily

The University has collaborated with many organizations and schools to promote science, technology, engineering and mathematics education and diversity in the field across many Charlottesville area schools.

Charlottesville City Schools Superintendent Rosa Atkins said in an email statement that various partnerships that have been formed over the years. She believes that promoting diversity is important, especially for those in lower income households since they traditionally do not enter STEM fields.

According to Atkins, classes taught in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences by Reid Bailey, associate professor of systems and information engineering, and Greg Lewin, lecturer of systems and information engineering, develop projects for Clark Elementary School, Walker Upper Elementary School and Buford Middle School. These projects culminate in a STEM fair that features interactive stations — reinforcing topics from the students’ lessons, such as photosynthesis and echolocation.

At Buford Middle School, Instructional Technology Prof. Glen L. Bull, Assoc. Education Prof. Joe Garofalo and VMDO architects collaborated to create the Buford Engineering Design Academy in order to facilitate opportunities in STEM exploration. Through this partnership, they crafted four STEM labs within the school, facilitating the integration of engineering concepts into the curricula. According to the VMDO website, these labs focus on the themes of technology, connectivity and collaboration and utilizing sustainable materials.

Robert Moje, an architect from VMDO who led the project for Buford, said it is important to foster an environment that creates opportunities for improved STEM education.

“Some people think it’s about how pretty a building looks on the outside,” Moje said.
“In my opinion that’s not important at all — it’s the places and spaces that are created that can foster the activities of human beings to pursue their passions and their joys, and STEM spaces have the most potential to do that.”

He noted that the evolution of the school system over hundreds of years has hindered STEM education in that classes are always set to 50 minutes with block scheduling, when development can only occur in a space where students can work over many weeks or semesters. Moje also expressed a desire for a fundamental change in the way students are taught.

“So even where we talked about STEM, we’re stuck in this old model of thinking that every job requires STEM, so schools should be preparing kids in STEM,” Moje said. “I would argue it should be about helping them find their passions, their joy and their joy of learning and discovery — not the acquisition of knowledge.”

In addition, the University has collaborated with Charlottesville High School for the past four years on a poster symposium, “Future Leaders in Health Care.” CHS teacher Anne Pfister, teaches the school’s human biology course for juniors and seniors and leads the poster project in her class.

For the project, the students go to the University’s Health Sciences library and conduct a literature search on an issue in health care, while meeting with physicians and scientists, who help the students search scientific journals. The students’ research culminates in a poster that they present at a symposium. At the symposium, after the students discuss their projects with the scientists, the scientists judge them and the top three projects are awarded prizes.

Pfister believes that this project and partnering with scientists at the University allows students to gain an in-depth understanding of issues in a real-world context.

“It’s applying what we do in class and applying to the real world … It’s not just doing a Google search,” Pfister said.

Brandon Kemp, co-chair of the Department of Medicine’s Staff Employee Advisory Council, helped to organize the symposium. He said that inspiring students to look into scientific research and reaching out to a diverse student body is important for development.

“I know that one of the first-years that we did this, we received a letter from one of the parents of one of the students, who said ‘Thank you so much for doing this sort of project to convince my daughter that she is capable in science,’” Kemp said. “Those things make it really worth it … Sometimes it will be a challenge for certain students, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t still enter that field.”

Leah Beard, assistant director for Diversity Programs at the School of Medicine, was also involved in organizing the symposium. She said STEM education needs to be promoted earlier on while emphasizing the benefits of diversity in STEM.

“I think it definitely has to start in elementary school, just to expose students to science experiments,” Beard said. “There’s been lots of research to show that diversity of background, socioeconomic status and gender and race improve the outcome of STEM fields, and so by getting involved in the local schools early it helps promote an interest in students that may not have that interest sparked elsewhere.”

Moreover, Asst. Chemistry Prof. Rebecca Pompano also partnered with CHS but on a different project. She organized a field trip earlier this week, in which her laboratory hosted students from CHS.

“The goal was to do a science and art field trip, so we had a combination of students from the art classroom and the chemistry, the AP chemistry, classes,” Pompano said.

According to Pompano, during the field trip, the students were first given tours of the laboratory by graduate students. Then, two graduate students presented their projects and discussed why they chose to pursue science and graduate school. The final activity that the students participated in was a science and art activity.

Pompano said that in this activity, which relates to her work on artificial organs, the students had to drop a surreal face on a puzzle. Then, they traded with another student and ended up with a new piece.

“The connection to science was that we do that when we make an artificial organ — we’ll rearrange it and connect it to other pieces,” Pompano said.

Pompano believes that this field trip allowed the students to gain exposure to a research lab. This exposure, according to Pompano, will show students that they can pursue research and become more informed citizens.

Atkins said that input from local resources, including parents, administrators, industry experts and university personnel, has facilitated the development of a diverse K-12 STEM program. She emphasized that “having this home-grown approach” allows for the needs of the students to be effectively met and for the educational benefits to be maximized.

“We want all students to go beyond their comfort level and try something new,” Atkins said. “It’s okay to make mistakes — in fact, we encourage them to make mistakes. We believe that is when really deep and meaningful learning occurs.”

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