“Sky’s the Limit” When Encouraging Students to Embrace STEM

August 15, 2019

Ten-year-old Juniper Gandee approached the cylindrical wind tunnel that was fashioned from a black portable fan wrapped in clear plastic. She had been there before, each time trying to make the contraption she created from small cups, colored tissue paper and tape fly up through the tunnel while holding two mini plastic people.

After three failed attempts and a little encouragement from West Virginia University (WVU) STEM Ambassador Jillian Clemente, Gandee ditched the cups for a paper vessel she made herself. She placed the lighter creation into the wind tunnel and with the flick of a switch it flew high into the air.

A triumphant Gandee pumped her fist – then went back to see what changes she could make to get it to fly even higher.

Gandee was one of a dozen students participating in an experiment called “Sky’s the Limit” during a camp in Wheeling, West Virginia. Crafted to teach kids about the engineering design process, the lesson is a part of the Mylan-sponsored Innovation Station being rolled out to 4-H campers across the state and, eventually, in West Virginia schools.

The program is designed to help encourage kids to embrace a growth mindset through the lessons learned through science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). It’s part of a larger partnership between Mylan and West Virginia University known as STEM-CARE, which hopes to transform learning in the state.

The goal is for STEM-CARE to be a program that becomes part of the fiber of West Virginia and the way that students in the state are educated, said Leah Summers, Mylan’s head of Community Outreach and Engagement.

“What this starts to do is create a sense of hope, opportunity, possibility and promise within students who are in school today that are the future of West Virginia. And by instilling some very real practical skills, hopefully that creates a very good foundation for West Virginia in the future,” she said.

Jennifer Robertson-Honecker, the STEM specialist for the WVU Extension Services 4-H Youth Development program, said the STEM-CARE initiative is transformative because not only is it being rolled out at the camps, but it will also be available in some form to kids in all 55 counties in the state. She said she doesn’t expect every child to pursue a STEM career, but she does hope to increase their curiosity and resilience through STEM programming.

Robertson-Honecker oversees the 21 WVU STEM ambassadors who have been teaching these lessons to kids this summer. She said some of the most valuable lessons the kids learn at the camps is outside of the classroom, when they interact with the STEM ambassadors and talk about what college is like or what they are studying.

“We know in West Virginia we have the lowest percentage of college degrees and many of these kids might be first-generation college students,” she said. “They might not have a lot of mentors in their area that have a college degree, and certainly not a science or engineering degree.”

Clemente, a recent West Virginia University graduate who has a degree in journalism and wildlife fisheries management, said the “Sky’s the Limit” lesson teaches kids about the engineering process, from planning and design to building and testing. Ambassadors keep the lessons fun by making it hands-on and creative while also encouraging campers to keep improving on their designs.

“A lot of kids don’t realize they have access to this technology here in West Virginia and they can be innovative and successful right at home,” Clemente said. “I hope that they know that they don’t have to be a specific type of person to try engineering or try a new hobby or try something out of their comfort zone.”

Watch a video about the camp lesson here