Teacher Alison Marousek stood at the door of the auditorium at Conowingo Elementary School, checking with each student after they finished presenting their science fair projects to the judges. “How’d you do?” she asked a third-grade student. “They said I did awesome!” the girl beamed.
The “they” that the student referred to were STEM students from area high schools and local scientists who served as judges for the school’s 2nd annual science fair on May 3. Six of the scientists who volunteered as judges were employees of the Edgewood Chemical Biological Center, or ECBC.
“This is a great turnout for our STEM program,” said Casey Weininger, ECBC STEM/outreach coordinator, who also served as a judge.
ECBC’s STEM & Educational Outreach Program serves schools in pre-K through 12th grade in Harford and Cecil counties throughout the school year. The 2016-2017 school year has marked a milestone for the program, reaching over 10,000 students this school year alone, more than in any school year. Since the program’s current inception in 2013, more than 26,000 students have been reached by the ECBC program, including participation by coordinators Weininger and Nicole McKew, both full-time STEM staff.
To date, 41 ECBC employees have given more than 1,500 volunteer hours this school year, serving at 38 schools. Volunteers have performed 350 hours of instruction and led more than 300 in-class STEM activities, including STEM nights, STEM expos and science fairs.
More than half of the ECBC volunteers serve as mentors for high school juniors and seniors completing their capstone projects. The volunteers work with individual students throughout the school year, one to two hours a week, from conceptualization to presentation of a project. The scientists ensure that the students adhere to scientific methods as they explore a topic and prove or disprove a theory.
For the elementary schools, Weininger develops activities that align with the classroom curriculum by taking a concept from class instruction and creating a project that’s fun for kids.
“It’s always something hands-on and immersive that motivates the kids to learn more about science” he said.
Weininger dispatches volunteers to the elementary schools weekly, carrying those familiar blue bags with science projects that the volunteers perform with the students. Employees who want to volunteer simply stop by Weininger’s office, where shelves are stocked with science projects by grade and subject, and leave with a kit containing everything they need to successfully complete the activity.
Weininger, a physical scientist and STEM program coordinator, spends four to five days each week in area schools. He is careful to note that he is paid for the time he spends in area schools and lauds the ECBC employees who generously give of their time to work with the youth.
“In the past, we had funding to support the volunteer hours but that funding no longer exists, yet our program continues to have a presence in our local schools,” Weininger said. “It really speaks to the dedication of our employees who take time out of their schedules without compensation because they desire to give back. It’s important that we reach the next generation of scientists and engineers.”
Jason Edmonds, a geneticist in ECBC’s Biosciences Division, and his wife Erin Durke, a research chemist in the Chemical Biological Radiological Filtration Branch at ECBC, volunteered because they live in Conowingo and have children in the same age group as the students in the fair. Edmonds said he grew up in a rural area much like Conowingo and didn’t have access to professionals in the sciences at this age.
“There was no one in my area who could do this, so I had to rely on teachers, parents and neighbors to help me out with my science projects,” Edmonds said. “This program is very beneficial for them to have the opportunity to meet adults in STEM careers so they’ll begin to look at what kinds of careers are available to them. I didn’t know what career opportunities I had until I got my degrees and went on my job search. These kids will have an idea early on.”
For Durke, it was important to attend as a woman scientist and as a mother with her fourth child on the way.
“I’ve always been proactive in helping other women get in, whether it was tutoring undergraduate students when I was in grad school or now mentoring students [through ECBC’s summer work program]. Getting girls interested in science at a young age is beneficial to everyone – our communities, our employers and our women.”
For schools like Conowingo Elementary School in Cecil County, the benefit of students interacting with actual scientists and engineers was an essential part of the science fair program, according to Marousek, an instructional coach in the gifted and talented program.
“When we tell the students that the adults who are here are biologists and chemists, it opens their eyes to what kinds of careers there are,” Marousek said. “It’s also a good experience for them to learn how to talk to adults and explain what they did with their projects,” she said.
“I interviewed a fourth grader who was so articulate!” exclaimed ECBC’s Frank Sanchez. “She’ll be an engineer someday.”
Sanchez, an ECBC lead engineer matrixed to the Joint Program Executive Office for Chemical and Biological Defense, said he’s never volunteered in a program like this before, “but this is a fantastic event. They’ll hopefully be working for us in the future.”
For this event, Weininger sent out an email to the ECBC workforce, asking for several volunteers to accommodate the science fair. Every employee who responded participated.
“It shows that they truly care, and that’s what we told the students, that the adults who are coming are interested in what you’re doing and they care about you,” Marousek said.
Olga Hartman also volunteered for the first time.
“It was very exciting,” she said. A general engineer in the Detection and Decontamination Division, Hartman volunteered because she lives in nearby Rising Sun but most importantly, she said, she is the parent of a son in middle school who excels in science.
“It’s important to encourage the youth to pursue STEM careers,” she said. “We need more scientists and engineers in this country.”
It was a busy morning for the volunteers. Each adult was teamed with a STEM student from one of the Cecil County high schools. The teams were assigned to interview students in grades three through five about their projects. Afterward, each team scored the student and made notes about the project. At the end, the teams gathered to deliberate on the highest-scoring projects for first-, second- and third-place winners in each grade level, as well as overall winners. Volunteers like Matt Jones heartily jumped into the debates and defended their students’ projects to the group.
“I enjoyed it,” said Jones, an environmental scientist in ECBC’s Risk Management Office. “The kids were very enthusiastic, which made it feel worthwhile. I’d do this again next year.”