Local Tech Wire STEM News

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. – As a sophomore in high school, Chelsea Sumner didn’t think of science as a possible career. She did well in those subjects, but it was not something about which she felt particularly passionate.

Her guidance counselor approached her with an opportunity from Project SEED, a North Carolina summer program that places minority students in research labs. Sumner weighed the prospects of spending her summer in a rigorous academic program, but eventually she signed on.

She received much more than she bargained for.

During a meeting hosted by the NC STEM Community Collaborative last month in Raleigh, a discussion brewed about how science competitions could make a positive impact on students so they can be college- and career-ready.

Sara Price, community liaison with NC STEM said effective leaders look beyond the school and into the community for those informal science opportunities.

Dr. Sam Houston, president and CEO of the North Carolina Science, Mathematics, and Technology Education Center (SMT Center) agreed that creating opportunities for students to do science often leads to informal science education programs.

“What we see in our schools is that the active science – where kids get to do science – is isolated,” Houston said. “Most of the time it’s inactive, where kids are being told about science.”

Houston has defined his own explanation of STEM as “strategies that engage minds.”

“If you think about it that way, it’s not about growing more scientists and engineers, it’s about growing people who can manage the difficult and dynamic world we live in,” he added.

Through the SMT Center, Houston and his colleague Lisa Rhoades have gained support from the N.C. General Assembly to create a virtual statewide science and mathematics competition center. The Web portal will provide a directory of competitions and judging opportunities.

“We want to make the website easy for everyone to access competition information, regardless if they are a student, parent, teacher or someone interested in becoming a judge,” Rhoades said.

The competition center also would like to create an entire community built around science competitions. “Students share a passion for science,” Rhoades added. “We’d like to bring them together.”

One competition, the N.C. Science Challenge, is headed by Dr. Fran Nolan, a former physics teacher from Boston. This competition brings together the best high school STEM-related projects from North Carolina to compete for a spot to attend the Beijing Youth Science Creation Challenge (BYSCC) in China.

“I’ve found that science and the students doing science (in other countries) are celebrated, and we need to do that too,” Nolan said. “The organizers of BYSCC invited international science teams to help their students celebrate science. It puts it in a global context.”

Chelsea Sumner’s research project for Project Seed at N.C. State University helped push her to the front of the pack and landed her in Beijing.

“It is the most important experience in my life so far,” she said. “The impact has been tremendous.”

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