Summer Challenges Stimulate Learning for FloridaLearns STEM Scholars Rural High School Students

When the last school bell rang this summer, thousands of Florida high school students headed for fun in the sun, summer jobs, or maybe just lazy days relaxing after a hard year of academics. But for a group of highly motivated 9th and 10th graders in Florida’s small, rural school districts, the end of the school year signaled the beginning of summer learning challenges staged by the FloridaLearns STEM Scholars project. During the first project year, 612 gifted and academically talented students were selected from 27 school districts in 3 regions of the state, the Northwest, Northeast and South Central, to take part in collaborative, hands-on experiences in the areas of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM), explore STEM career paths never imagined in many of their limited world experiences, and to develop leadership skills.FloridaLearns STEM Scholars is a three-year long project, funded through Florida’s Race to the Top initiative from the Florida Department of Education.

The FloridaLearns STEM Scholars initiative was launched in July, 2011 with a vision to help Florida address its urgent and important STEM talent development challenge by focusing on some of Florida’s most underserved students, its gifted and talented in the rural regions of the state. The Panhandle Area Educational Consortium (PAEC) located in Chipley, the Heartland Educational Consortium (HEC) in Lake Placid and the North Florida Educational Consortium(NEFEC) in Palatka are working in partnership to help transform teaching, learning and leadership in the areas of STEM. The $4.5 million dollar project addresses a serious gap in STEM education for gifted and talented students in the state’s small, rural school districts served by their three rural-based regional educational service organizations and is identified as Florida’s Rural STEM Education Initiative.

Over June and July, a series of regional Summer Challenge programs are providing opportunities for students to become immersed in STEMMING. The series of Summer Challenges were launched the week of June 11- 14. At North Florida Community College students from Jefferson, Madison, and Taylor Counties worked through a series of engaging mathematical explorations that integrated algebraic and geometric representations for conic sections: circles, parabola, ellipses, and hyperbolas. On hand to share the math involved in the design and functionality of roundabouts and to speak with students about engineering as an occupation were civil engineers Jared Perdue and Heath Henderson from the Florida Department of Transportation. The four-day workshop not only provided some of these rural students with one of their first college on site experiences, but more importantly connected these mathematical ideas to the worlds of engineering, science, technology and art.

Students from seven small and rural school districts, Columbia, Flagler, Gilchrist, Lafayette, Levy, Putnam, Union as well as P. K. Yonge in Northeast Florida experienced exciting scientific hands-on discoveries in the areas of water ecology, statistics and engineering at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville during this same week of June 11. Through a university experience with labs, course activities, and campus atmosphere, they enjoyed authentic STEM experiences in team building, and leadership development, fostering student awareness of the relevance of their mathematics and science experiences to their everyday lives.

Also, beginning on June 11, students from Gadsden, Liberty and Wakulla Counties came together at the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory in Tallahassee, to take part in the D3(Dream, Design, and Do) NanoChallenge where students designed instruments to test specific materials in order to determine the characteristics of the materials. Students were then challenged to use the tools they developed to find materials most suited for specific tasks. As a team, they explored a novel ethical issue in nanotechnology and designed and constructed a device to simulate the manner in which the electron force microscope works. Jose Sanchez, Assistant Director of the Center for Integrating Research and Learning at the NHMFL, treated students to a tour of the facility. Participants also had the opportunity to interact with scientists Dr. Maitri Warusawithana, who showed the equipment used in molecular beam epitaxy and Bob Goddard, and Jonathan Ludwig, who demonstrated how scanning electron and atomic force microscopes work, respectively. In a series of career presentations, Darrel Tremaine, a geochemist and Angela Sutton, a chemical engineer and Safety Director at the NHMFL described their workplace and academic preparation for their careers and Dr. Matt Eby, a nanobioscientist, shared cutting edge developments in his occupational area – nanobiology.

Another unique Summer Challenge learning experience was held the week of June 11 for the gifted and students from the rural Heartland region of Florida. These 9th and 10th graders in Desoto, Glades, Hardee, Hendry, Highlands, and Okeechobee spent four days in residence at the Florida Gulf Coast University in Ft. Myers. They lived on campus staying in student dormitories along with their FloridaLearns STEM Scholars mentor teachers and the Heartland Educational Consortium project staff members to better understand and appreciate the post secondary learning experience. During the camp, they explored four areas of engineering – civil, bioengineering, environmental, and software. Students worked in teams to design, collect data, and receive feedback in what was termed a “Colossal Challenge”. Parents were invited to attend both the competition and the closing presentations.

The week of June 25th, had students from Holmes and Walton Counties studying the ecology of field sites at the E. O. Wilson Biophilia Center in rural Walton County where they identified, described, and calculated the diversity of plants and animals. They also searched for rare and endangered species and used their newfound information to make informed decisions regarding the environmental impacts of hypothetical construction projects. Students employed their scientific site assessments to make an informed decision about where and how to build a road to offset and reduce its environmental impacts. They held a lively mock “city commission meeting” and presented their scientific findings, including descriptions of possible road locations and features, listened to interesting views from “local citizens” and debated environmental and policy issues associated with building the road.

During this same time period, 9th and 10th grade students from Jackson and Washington Counties studied at Chipola College in Marianna to learn and practice the STEM skills needed for crime scene investigations. Challenge participants were first introduced to the science of crime scene investigations by Shawn Yao, a crime scene analyst from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. As part of their challenge, students learned about methods used to process evidence collected at crime scenes and then, gained important laboratory skills as they implemented each of the methods they learned about. During the week they analyzed hair and fibers collected from the crime scene, completed forgery detections and drug tests, extracted and analyzed DNA using gel electrophoresis, conducted ballistics comparisons, examined blood spatters, carried out a forensic entomology examination, and did a forensic odontology comparison. Throughout the week they prepared to become expert witnesses and to defend the results of their analyses when questioned by a prosecutor in court during the week’s culminating activity which was a trial.

During the week of July 23-26, students from Calhoun, Franklin, and Gulf counties were engaged in STEMming at the STEM Institute at Florida State University in Panama City. There they learned to plan, design, build, and program LEGO MINDSTORM™ robots that performed different tasks and maneuvers to conquer a series of robotics challenges. During this STEMulation Robotic Challenge, teams of students will work with scientists and engineers from the Naval Surface Warfare Center, Panama City Division, to develop real-world robotic challenge design presentations using PowerPoint and Excel for team presentations before Challenge judges, simulating real-life future career experiences.

Preparing these students for the next phase of the FloridaLearns STEM Scholars project in the upcoming 2012-13 school year, the second year of the three-year funding initiative is an important goal of the Summer Challenges. By stimulating excitement, encouraging deeper understanding of the STEM disciplines, and motivating greater inquiry and learning, STEM stakeholders from business and industry, economic development, workforce agencies and educational leaders are looking forward with excitement to Florida’s ability to help produce the STEM talent needed to sustain and advance Florida’s critical economic future by tapping the state’s underserved small and rural gifted and talented students’ potential – home grown.

Click Here to Watch FloridaLearns STEM Scholars Summer Challenges in Action on the Video Journal

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