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How do you motivate middle school students from a poor community, where no one in their home has ever gone to college, not just to think about going to college, but actually see themselves as science majors at a large research university? You immerse them in a college chemistry experience!

To do so, you could arrange for the professors to bring their instruction to the middle school classroom. Or, you take your kids to the college, put them in a chemistry lab, and let them do the science. But whichever approach you take, it helps to start young — as early as the sixth grade.

Consider the work of Drs. Reza Ghiladi and Jeremiah Feducia, both with the Department of Chemistry at North Carolina State University (NC State). The two educators have been extending the world of university science to rural North Carolina elementary and middle schools through their chemistry outreach program called STARS, or Science and Technology Activities in Rural Schools.

They literally take the show on the road to young people who, because of the geography and economy of where they live, do not have access to many of the rich science opportunities the state offers. It is a multi-layered approach, integrating more dynamic and authentic chemistry experiences into the classroom curriculum. It is also introducing the students into the world of laboratories at NC State. The effect is to enable students to see themselves at college, participate in science, and be taught by college professors. Drs. Ghiladi and Feducia’s work is opening up new possibilities in STEM education in North Carolina, and empowering students to pursue STEM majors and careers, no matter what their socio-economic background.

Sound expensive? Surprisingly not: Because the costs were shared by a number of organizations, it works out to about $5.00 per student. Let’s look at the financial breakdown. Supplies for the demonstrations are mostly available at any college or university chemistry lab and very little had to be bought; maybe $200 a year for extra materials. Transportation for the students to come to NCSU were kept under $200 by using activity buses and school bus drivers. The chemistry department at NCSU certainly was very generous with their support, a small grant from the American Chemical Society helped, and the PTA at West Lee Middle School was delighted to support the project.

Just out of reach

Google map of North Carolina showing Lee County and NC State.

Lee County, North Carolina is an underserved rural area that is just far enough away from the state’s rich science community, Research Triangle Park, to make accessibility to these science resources a burden on the schools. Field trips are expensive. The distance is often prohibitive for speakers from the university to make the trek to visit outlying school districts. This distance and lack of exposure further limits the options for students, many of whom are minorities.

Other programs provide science demonstrations in schools. However, there are several things that set the STARS program apart, including the number of visits, the attention to curriculum integration, and an exciting field trip to NC State. In addition, the program allows for a good professor-to-student ratio and a more productive learning environment. Professors spend an entire day, once a month, for an entire semester, teaching the cooperating teachers’ middle school classes.

An important facet of the STARS program is the amount of attention paid to integrating chemistry laboratory experiences into the grade-level curriculum. Drs. Ghiladi and Feducia meet with the classroom teacher to plan all of the classroom visits and the field trip to maximize the program’s support of what the students are learning in their science classes. While demonstration programs are engaging, fun, and introduce some chemistry topics to students, they do not by themselves provide an opportunity for any kind of serious interaction. However, one of the objectives of the STARS program is to integrate into the science classes and provide a more authentic learning experience.

In 2013, 8th grade teachers at East Lee Middle School worked with STARS to create a comprehensive curriculum integration plan, built around the 8th grade science standards and focusing on the topics of forensic science, energy, and water quality. They utilized the pond on the school grounds as an outdoor classroom. Students tested various spots in the pond for depth and exposure to the sun, and then used those results to make predictions based on the physical properties of the pond. Testing water from the faucets and drinking fountains of the school also provided a relevant learning opportunity. The STARS program provided a relevant and topical exploration for students that encompassed both the earth science and chemistry essential standards.

A sustained effort

In both 2014 and again in 2016, STARS worked with science teacher Amy Braren at West Lee Middle School. Drs. Ghiladi and Feducia brought titration equipment to demonstrate how to break down water into hydrogen and oxygen. Balloons filled with hydrogen were blown up and students created batteries out of potatoes. Gummy Bears burst into flames in a simulated digestion reaction — all to enhance the sixth-grade science objectives and bring excitement to student learning.

As luck would have it, Braren moved into an 8th grade science position just as her former 6th grade students were also entering 8th grade — and the STARS program also followed these same students. Because of their ongoing relationship with Dr. G and Dr. F, as the students call them, Braren’s students view them as an extension to their science classroom.

Dr. ghiladi gets the forensic lab started web Dr. ghiladi csi lab demo web
(left) Dr. Ghiladi gets a forensic lab started. (right) Dr. G shows result of Superglue fuming in CSI lab. Credit: S. Calderara

The class is able to build on what the professors bring on their visits. For example, the professors once brought dry ice and liquid nitrogen to illustrate how the temperature of gases can be reduced until they change into liquids or even solids. The timing was perfect, since the classes were just going into phase changes.

Curriculum is important — but it is not all that is important. According to Mrs. Braren, “It’s more about how the kids feel about science and getting them excited. The professors talk to the kids at their level and make the chemistry approachable.” For this science teacher, seeing her students excited about science keeps her coming back to the program.

The culminating event, bringing the students to NC State for the day, is the most important facet, according to Braren. The field trip includes a tour of the campus, chemistry demonstrations, and time in the chemistry lab. With the help of professors and teaching assistants, the middle school students work through different laboratory investigations ranging from creating aspirin to chromatography.

Lee County has been a part of the STARS program for several years now, with teachers at both East Lee and West Lee Middle Schools participating. Since some students have been in Braren’s class for both 6th and 8th grade and have been part of STARS for most of their middle school experience, they realize how much Dr. Ghiladi and Dr. Feducia have been dedicated to them, and the feelings seem to be mutual. One of Braren’s students summed it up this way: “It feels like they really care about us, because they could have gone anywhere else, but they chose Mrs. Braren’s class.”

Early signs are good

Whether it’s due to the maturing that happens between entering middle school in sixth grade and being the “seniors” on campus as eighth graders, being a part of Braren’s science class, or participating in the STARS program for two years, more of the students are seeing STEM in their futures. Braren reported that many of her 8th grade students were signing up for the science and engineering track when registering for high school. The original goals of the program were to promote interest in science, inform students of possible career interests in science, and show students the opportunities available to them at the university level.It appears that the program has gone above and beyond and is helping students reach for the stars in science.

Even more inspiring, perhaps, is that it all started with a Google search. As the science curriculum coach in Lee County, I was searching the NC State website for outreach programs. The chemistry department has a representative in charge of outreach. A few phone calls later, and this very productive outreach partnership between Lee County and NC State Chemistry was off the ground.

The moral of the story is that colleges and universities have people in various STEM departments who are looking for ways to serve in the K-12 classrooms. It may be well worth investigating the STEM departments of a college or university near you. Who knows, you might discover your own STARS . . . (program, that is).