Pfeiffer University STEM camps help students build confidence and competence in science, technology, engineering, and math-related fields
Recent innovations in the fields of DNA technology and molecular biology have created unparalleled opportunities for young people to move into careers related to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).
There’s just one major problem: Students, across the nation, are “scared” of science.
“Student interest in STEM-related fields is on the decline due to the perceived level of difficulty of science, especially on the level of molecular genetics,” said Pfeiffer University’s Laura Reichenberg.
Reichenberg, an assistant professor of biology, teamed up with Laura Lowder, a Pfeiffer associate professor of education, to create the university’s first STEM camps for middle school and high school students in 2013. The goal was to improve students’ enthusiasm and competence in math and science through hands-on learning experiences while also encouraging students to pursue research and other science-related careers.
From a humble beginning of 25 participants in the first summer program, Pfeiffer’s STEM education offerings have extended to an “All Girls” STEM camp, a Project GENES camp, and personalized visits to several local schools that cumulatively have reached nearly 300 students.
“High school appears to be a key point at which young people’s impressions of science influence their future career decisions,” Reichenberg said. “What we really want to show our students is that “You can do this… and it’s fun.’”
Hands-on genetics education
Project GENES, a 5-day residential summer camp held on the Pfeiffer University campus, teaches students about DNA technology through learning modules designed to build knowledge, collaboration skills, and confidence.
The camp is free for participants. But how to help students overcome their fear of science enough to participate? The answer, for Samuel Wasserman, started with the pizza.
Wasserman, who enrolled in Project GENES as a sophomore at Independence High School, first heard about the camp from a friend who said the camp was “fun” and that “they had a bunch of pizzas.”
“I joined Project GENES my sophomore year due to pizza,” Wasserman said. “It wasn’t for the pursuit of knowledge outside of the classroom or performing biological experiences.”
Wasserman, who glibly added that his favorite experiment involved “gel electrophoresis” and “micropipetting,” acknowledged that Project GENES was an “eye-opening experience” that changed his feelings about science.
“I was able to see people who were passionate for science, learning just for the sake of learning,” he said. “This inspired me, and I am glad to say I now love science.”
Pfeiffer University currently partners with four local high schools – Independence High School, Phillip O. Berry Academy of Technology, Gray Stone Day School and A.L. Brown High School – to recruit student scientists.
As part of Project GENES, students attend a “Saturday Symposium” where they network with Pfeiffer biology majors, mentors, and visiting professors. Past keynote speeches have addressed the role of genetically modified plants in nutrition, the genetics of cell biology and cancer research, and the impact on brain function of consuming excessive amounts of foods high in fat and sugar. The day wraps up with a discussion about how to apply for college and a tour of the Pfeiffer campus.
The camp also includes day trips to local research institutes, including the North Carolina Research Campus and the David H. Murdock Research Institute.
An experiment at David H. Murdock, involving bacteria and Petri dishes, was Estefany Escobar’s favorite lesson. Escobar, who enrolled in Project GENES while a junior at Independence High School, said she also enjoyed meeting new people and “getting a taste of a college setting.”
“It made me realize how much I love science,” Escobar said. “Having this hands-on experience and being exposed to new environments opened my eyes to more opportunities.”
While women make up roughly half of those obtaining U.S. college degrees in STEM fields, they represent only 29 percent of the science and engineering workforce, according to a study by the National Girls Collaborative Project.
Pfeiffer University’s “All Girls STEM Camp” hopes to change that statistic by exposing young women to science that can be fun – not scary.
Students who attended the 2018 all-female summer session learned about biodiversity by analyzing pond life in water samples, about genetic engineering by injecting E. coli bacteria with green fluorescent proteins, and about DNA technology by extracting DNA from their own cheek cells.
Hayley Moore, a senior at North Stanly High School and a returning participant to the All Girls STEM camp, said she most enjoyed learning about the “many different types of bacteria” and how to use a pipette – a slender laboratory tool with a bulb at one end used to measure and transport liquids.
Tah’mya Sellers, a student at Albemarle Middle School, also enjoyed using the lab equipment and said she was “very thankful” for the camp.
“It brings more girls together as a team, and it shows girls we can do everything,” Tah’mya said.
Lowder, who attended science camps on the Pfeiffer campus as a young girl and whose daughter Haley now participates each year in the camp, said the All Girls STEM camps “have been hugely successful in building confidence, interest, and self-efficacy in science.”
Haley Lowder, 13, summed up the positive impact of the camp by saying, “It shows us that we are special and just as smart as guys.”
Lowder added that Pfeiffer University recently sponsored a series of after-school fall workshops that continued the connection between a select group of female students and female scientists from the camp.
Academic achievement and outreach
Pfeiffer’s efforts to connect students to STEM experiments also includes a series of two- to three-hour visits at the partnering schools throughout the school year.
All experiments align with the state’s Common Core standards for science education– with stunning results. Data compiled from tests taken before and after the STEM lessons indicate that students, on average, triple their content knowledge.
“We have a lot of good data showing it’s making a difference,” Reichenberg said.
Lowder said a key factor contributing to the students’ academic success is the programs’ inquiry-based approach: “Rather than being told information and facts, campers explore, experiment and engineer their way towards finding solutions.”
Ninety percent of students surveyed also indicated that they were “more interested” in science after completing the program.
Generous funding from multiple sponsors over the years – including a recent $130,000 grant awarded to Pfeiffer University from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund for its student STEM enrichment programs – has allowed students from all backgrounds to attend the camp free of charge.
“We want our offerings to be available for as many families as want to take advantage of them,” Lowder said.
The grant will allow Pfeiffer to outfit the partner schools and their own STEM camp labs with high-powered equipment, cover board and program fees for summer campers and, of course, purchase the pizza.
“Food helps bring them in,” Reichenberg acknowledged, with a laugh.
Wasserman, the student who first enrolled in a Pfeiffer STEM camp while on the prowl for pizza, continued seeking science opportunities for himself even after the camp finished. He wrote about his STEM experiences on an application for the Governor’s School of North Carolina for Natural Science.
He was accepted.
“The prompt was to talk about an extracurricular that molded you into the person you are today,” Wasserman noted. “Fortunately, I was accepted into the school and did attend the 2018 summer session.”
Reichenberg knows that Pfeiffer’s STEM camps and the confidence students gain during them can translate into successful futures in science.
“This program shows these students that they don’t need to be afraid of science,” Reichenberg said. “They can be successful in the STEM field.”