July 19 was an especially busy day for NJIT’s Center for Pre-College Programs (CPCP). Not only was CPCP overseeing its various summer offerings taking place across campus, it was also welcoming educators in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) to a special forum that intertwined a bit with students attending the annual Bernard Harris Summer STEM Camp (BHSSC). Before the forum’s keynote speaker and camp namesake Dr. Bernard Harris — a former astronaut, CEO of the National Math and Science Initiative (NMSI) and CPCP Advisory Board member — stepped up to the podium, a foursome of BHSSC campers presented to the attendees. Their exhibition demonstrated the use of magnets to overcome gravity in order to make jigsaw puzzles a viable way for astronauts to pass the time while in space.

STEM School Leadership Forum 2018 - Building STEM Partnerships underscored CPCP’s two-pronged approach to helping increase the STEM pipeline: teach pre-college students about STEM and learn from educators about what is needed in their own districts to do so. The forum, the second of which CPCP intends to be an annual event, “is designed to foster dialogue and partnerships between NJIT, as a higher education community, and school decision-makers on issues that support the advancement of STEM education,” said Jacqueline Cusack, CPCP executive director. “The more informed we are on the perspectives of school leaders and the challenges they face in implementing STEM education, the more effective we can be in supporting the preparation of students as they make their way through the STEM pipeline.”

Toward this end, CPCP also works collaboratively with NJIT’s academic colleges to provide professional development to teachers, curriculum leaders and school principals. Past workshops focused on physics, in conjunction with the College of Science and Liberal Arts, and engineering, in cooperation with Newark College of Engineering. In response to the high demand for these programs, CPCP is already planning another series for the upcoming academic year.

“Coming here to NJIT is extremely helpful, because I get to meet people who are also very dedicated to the STEM process [and] STEM education,” commented forum attendee Stephanie Stern-Protz, coordinator for experiential learning and lead NASA CCRI teacher at North Bergen STEM academy. “I found out that there’s a lot to learn from people in other districts who have different perspectives, maybe different student populations … and vice versa.”

Middle schoolers participating in the Bernard Harris Summer STEM Camp gave a presentation about jigsaw puzzles in space to STEM forum attendees.
More than 60 STEM educators attended CPCP's STEM School Leadership Forum 2018 - Building STEM Partnerships.

Inspiring Young Minds

During his address at the forum — which also featured a panel discussion on the elements of an effective STEM program and a tour of NJIT’s Makerspace led by NCE Dean Moshe Kam — Dr. Harris spoke about “STEM deserts” and the peril they pose to sufficiently preparing America’s youth for the future. He explained that such areas, in existence throughout the country, either do not make math and science courses (particularly calculus and physics) available to students, or do not emphasize them enough in light of today’s tech-driven world. “Other Western nations are improving faster than we are,” he noted.

NMSI, he added, is identifying and targeting these areas for implementing in-school and after-school programming along with professional development, just as CPCP has been doing since 1979 to enhance STEM education in Newark and other Garden State communities. Its role in the BHSSC dates back 12 years, with each new crop of middle schoolers bringing great joy to Dr. Harris, who pays a visit every summer.

“Watching them take all the science principles that they’ve learned and put them into action [is very gratifying]. What I love to see is the light bulb go off in their brains, and you can actually see it when you put an inquiry out there, and they think about it and think about it and then they go, ‘Oh, yeah!’ and then they run off and they figure it out, how to do it,” Dr. Harris remarked. “It’s very exciting … this is the future here.”

Dr. Bernard Harris served as the STEM forum's keynote speaker.

Educational Impact

On that third Thursday of July, the campers were given aluminum foil, duct tape and a ping pong ball and tasked with constructing a prototype “space elevator” as a cost-effective means of sending cargo, satellites and humans into space. Dr. Harris looked on as the student teams constructed aluminum tubes, the highest reaching 52 inches, with the ping pong ball serving as a counterweight.

Even more indicative of the effect the two-week residential STEM camp had on the students were their presentations. Working in groups, they designed poster boards, created PowerPoints and practiced talking points on how to adapt everyday objects to function effectively in space. The projects fostered teamwork and represented the culmination of all that the students learned about STEM at the BHSSC.

Campers Julissa Beltran, Brian Conza, Selene Tecla and Christopher Ulloa described how they would build a swimming pool and keep the water inside it, while Talia Caguana, Gustavo Gonzalez, Dominic Pina and Kiara Solano explained how they would modify a toy car to gather space data as well as serve as a fun plaything. They all appreciated studying STEM, going on field trips and experiencing campus life.

“We learned so much throughout this [camp] to prepare us for the following [school] year,” said Solano. “And it was really enjoyable. We had a great time.” Added Caguana, “We got to meet new people, new friends.”

Feedback about the STEM forum was also enthusiastic, indicating “that it is a meaningful venue in which participants may garner information from the higher education perspective to support their decision-making and also have opportunities to interact with other school leaders on STEM issues,” Cusack concluded. “STEM programming for pre-college students can be delivered in a variety of meaningful formats that should reflect local school community needs, input and resources, and be grounded in high standards and best practice.”

The day's hands-on activity had campers constructing "space elevators" out of aluminum foil.
The "Toy Car in Space" team - (from left) Talia Caguana, Dominic Pina, Gustavo Gonzalez and Kiara Solano