Summer Camps Give High School Grads a Taste of STEM Fields

KISSIMMEE -Austen Findora was gently shaking the test tube, mixing the mushy green pea solution with a soap solution.  His lab partner, Juan Pacheco, explained that the idea was to mix the two without creating a lot of soapy bubbles.

Meanwhile other lab partners had already moved to the next step — gently pouring alcohol into the test tubes and watching as the DNA from the peas separated into a white foamy layer.

Although the experiment looked pretty basic, the lab teams had just learned how to extract the DNA from peas. Which, they said, was a pretty cool thing.

“What did we observe?” Professor Brian Sage asked the group. “That DNA looks like snot!”

All jokes aside, the mushy green pea DNA experiment was the culmination of a week full of experiments — in which students used a catapult to launch golf balls across campus (physics) and used statistics to play Mythbusters and decide whether it’s true that a person’s height is the same as his arm span.  So while many of their friends spent the week at the beach or on summer vacation, 31 students spent a week at Valencia College’s STEM summer camp, discovering some of the coolest things about science, math and technology.

The summer camps — which were held at three Valencia campuses — are just one part of a three-year effort to increase the number of minority students majoring in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM)  when they transfer to four-year universities.. The program is funded by a $1.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation.

“Across the country, we have seen a disproportionately low number of minority students pursuing degrees in math, science and engineering,” said Dr. Kathleen Plinske, president of Valencia College’s Osceola and Lake Nona campuses and principal investigator for the grant. “We have identified a number of strategies that we will be able to implement through the grant to encourage students’ interest in STEM fields and support their success.”

The goal of the grant is to double the number of under-represented minority students who pursue bachelor’s degrees in STEM fields.

And after the summer camp, a number of students said they thought the camps not only taught them about future careers — but also gave them a chance to meet professors.

“This was the best thing I could have done,” said Findora, 19, who graduated this year from Freedom High School. “Now I can’t wait to start classes.”

Although Findora has toyed with the idea of studying civil engineering, he worried that he wasn’t smart enough for the challenging curriculum. “Being here this week, I finally realized that this is what I want to do. And I realized you don’t have to be the smartest kid in the class to be an engineer.”

For Juan Pacheco, who just graduated from Gateway High School in Kissimmee, listening to and meeting a Lockheed Martin engineer describe his job cemented Pacheco’s passion for aerospace engineering. ” One day, I want to design rockets and air-defense systems,” said Pacheco.

Christian Rosa, who recently graduated from Celebration High School, is leaning toward becoming a paramedic, but he enjoyed all the experiments, from a microbiology examination of yeast to a physics experiment, in which the students used a catapult to launch golf balls. “It’s been fun,” Rosa said.

Meanwhile, his classmate and lab partner, Sherly German, said the camp helped her realize that civil engineering is her field. “It’s been interesting to touch upon the different sciences,” German said, “but I’m definitely hoping to go into civil engineering.”



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