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RI STEM Center at RIC hosts middle-school career fair, presents workshops

This story is a follow-up to the What’s News article, "Middle-school girls attend inaugural STEM career exposition at RIC", posted on Dec. 8.

RI STEM Center staff members Constance Horton, second from left, and Janice Kowalczyk, right, with three middle-school students during a STEM in the Middle workshop. (Photo: Meredith Brower)
Middle-school students who attended the STEM in the Middle event on Dec. 2 each went to two of 10 workshops designed to sharpen STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) critical thinking skills. They used math to solve mysteries from literature, experimented with a computer programming language, designed bridges from everyday items, extracted DNA from strawberries and more.

Donna Christy, associate professor of mathematics and computer science at RIC, led “The Bridges to Mathematics and Literature” workshop, which encouraged students to examine mysteries from popular young adult novels, including “The Hunger Games” by S. Collins and “The BFG” by Roald Dahl, and use math to try and solve them.

Janice Kowalczyk, RI STEM Center staff member and leader of the digital media and programming workshop, gave her students a tutorial in Scratch – a computer programming language on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology website that makes it fun and easy for students to create and share interactive stories, animations, games and music online.

There are over two million Scratch programs already available online for people to experiment with. Scratch gives students the opportunity to examine and build on other student projects that interest them, said Kowalczyk.

“The best learning resources start with something the students like,” Kowalczyk said.

The STEM Center seeks to improve STEM literacy and education throughout Rhode Island by engaging teachers and professionals in developing new initiatives and partnerships to increase student awareness, interest and motivation at all educational levels, said Mary Sullivan, director of the Center.

Sullivan led “Building Bridges,” an engineering workshop that allowed girls to get into groups and use their imaginations to design bridges from basic household items while using teamwork and problem solving skills. Students examined pictures of different forms of bridges, including arch, suspension and girder, and gave the groups each an egg carton cut in half, a half sheet of 8.5 x 11 paper and scissors, which they used to make their own bridges.

Mary Sullivan, director of the RI STEM Center at RIC, led the "Building Bridges" workshop. (Photo: Meredith Brower)
Constance Horton, staff member at the STEM Center and assistant professor of educational studies at RIC, attended the biotechnology workshop, “What Does DNA Look Like?” led by Rebecca Cabral, manager of training and development at Amgen.

In this workshop, said Horton, students wore goggles and gloves, and extracted, purified and spooled DNA from strawberries, and learned how the extraction of DNA from cells and its purification is important to the field of biotechnology.

At the end of the STEM in the Middle event, the girls were given questionnaires asking what they liked about or learned from the workshops.

One student wrote, “it was hands on, I liked that I learned a lot,” and another said, “I learned that I could be anything I wanted to be.”

A survey was also given to teachers asking them to list two positive things they noticed of their students in the workshops. One teacher noted that her students were able to make connections and acknowledge the value of what they learn in class.

“We’re trying to engage young girls in what they might be interested in,” Sullivan said, highlighting an important goal of the RI STEM Center: to support STEM education for all students.

Several teachers and students suggested the Center host a STEM family night in the future, which would be similar to STEM in the Middle, but would allow students to showcase what they have learned, and what continues to interest them in STEM fields.