Penn State Harrisburg Summer STEM program wows high school students

High school students got the opportunity to do experiments in Penn State Harrisburg's state-of-the art labs during a two-week summer STEM program. Credit: Penn State Harrisburg / Penn StateCreative Commons

MIDDLETOWN, Pa. -- "I really didn’t know what STEM stood for, or what an engineer did before this camp,” said Mechanicsburg Area High School senior Neel Trivedi.

Trivedi, like many of the other 28 high school students from 12 area high schools who completed Penn State Harrisburg’s two-week STEM Summer Enrichment Program, had very little experience with science technology engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines. Many of them were interested in science or mathematics, but this program helped cement their desire to pursue higher studies and careers in STEM fields.

The program, held in June, provided high school juniors and seniors a clearer idea of what the different scientific disciplines involve, helping to give them a better sense of what major they might pursue, what careers are available, and what learning at the university level would be like.

See photos from the STEM Summer Enrichment Program

Created by Rafic Bachnak, director of Penn State Harrisburg’s School of Science, Engineering and Technology (SSET), the free program provided a hands-on learning experience for students that went beyond their expectations.

“I wasn’t really expecting it to be what it was,” said Cedar Cliff High School senior Anna Traub. “I thought that it was just going to be like school, algebra and geometry, but we ended up learning so many more abstract concepts which I have never been exposed to. It was nice to have this experience because I want to be in this field.”

Bachnak developed the program in response to the growing need for individuals to fill STEM jobs. “Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics are crucial fields for driving innovation and competitiveness,” Bachnak said. “STEM jobs show the highest expectation for growth: 17 percent as compared to 10 percent for jobs overall. By 2018, there may be as many as 2.4 million unfilled STEM jobs in the United States.”

Program activities and lectures focused on the topics of mathematics, computer science, chemistry, biology, civil engineering, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, and physics. The students were provided one week of science and one week of engineering.

Activities included two field trips, tours college facilities, demonstrations, and experiments, led by SSET faculty, including Justin Keller, lecturer of mathematical sciences; Peggy Ankney, lecturer of physics; Thomas Kell, laboratory supervisor; Mitch Spear, laboratory manager; Sairam Rudrabhatla, associate professor of biology; Jeremy Blum, associate professor of computer science; Shashi Marikunte, senior lecturer of civil engineering; Seth Wolpert, associate professor of electrical engineering; Brian Maicke, assistant professor of mechanical engineering; and Ola Rashwan, lecturer in mechanical engineering.

“Dr. Bachnak had this vision, he’s done programs like this before,” said Susan Eskin, lecturer of physics in Penn State Harrisburg’s School of Science, Engineering and Technology and director of the STEM Summer Enrichment Program. “Dr. Bachnak recruited faculty and staff from the SSET programs based on a planned schedule he had drafted and asked me to help execute it with the faculty and staff.”

Three Penn State Harrisburg students assisted Eskin -- Baha Bachnak, Xinnan Niu, and Matta Santoh. The students prepared materials for the program, researched similar programs, and organized activities.

“We stayed with them the entire day, in class, during their free time and at lunch,” said Niu. “The program was well received by the students. Many said that this was an eye opening experience that showed them what engineering and high level science looks like.”

For Trivedi and Jacob Idowu, a junior at Middletown High School, being able to do experiments in Penn State Harrisburg’s state-of-the-art labs was a treat. 

“I really liked being in the labs,” Idowu said. “Actually working with equipment. That is not something we have at my school. We have some engineering classes, but nothing that could compare to what we are able to do here.”

“I’ve never been in a lab before,” added Trivedi. "We were actually doing things that felt like they had a purpose.”

Aside from labs and demonstrations, the students journeyed off campus on field trips, one to a Pennsylvania Animal Diagnostic Lab and another to program sponsor ArcelorMittal, where the students got an in-depth look at the inner workings of the steel and mining plant. The visit was facilitated by David Wirick, retired general manager at ArcelorMittal, who was also a great supporter of the program.

“It was fantastic,” Eskin said. “They showed us the plant in its full functionality. They fired up the burners and put us into their safety gear. It was a really good tour and the students were extremely interested. It was amazing to see.”

The students agreed. “It was crazy! I wasn’t expecting it to be so intense, or so loud,” Traub said. “We had to wear earplugs and fire-resistant jackets and hard hats. I really liked it.”

Idowu added, “You always drive by [ArcelorMittal] and it looks like not much is happening, but when you’re actually inside there is so much happening. It was cool to see how the processes actually work.”

For Trivedi, the ArcelorMittal tour was his favorite part of the program. “It was extremely involved. If you reached out, you could touch actual raw materials. That was cool.”

Eskin said that she had hoped that the students left the program with “a clearer idea of what the different scientific disciplines involve. The difference between a bio engineer and a biologist, or a chemist and a chemical engineer.” She said that overall the students were surprised by the differences and all the STEM study and career options.

Trivedi, who was considering a career in medicine, discovered that he was really interested in math. “Before this camp I was leaning toward a career in medicine, but then I went to the math seminar and the 3D printing, I realized that I really enjoy engineering too. I think I will try to combine the two.”

Idowu said that although he was thinking about studies in biomedical engineering, he is keeping his mind open. “I liked being exposed to all the different kinds of engineering.”

One of the teaching assistants gave Traub a career path option that she had never even thought of. “I want to be a chemical engineer and I didn’t really know what chemical engineers do, just that I like chemistry and math. One of our teaching assistants, who has a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering, told me that there are jobs in the makeup industry for chemical engineers. Makeup! That’s my thing.

“I could just imagine myself making lipsticks and working for makeup brands designing makeup. That would be awesome!”

Last Updated September 12, 2016