Quyen Aoh, associate professor of biology at Gannon, said she believes students who are frequently exposed to STEM learning outside of the formal classroom are likelier to stay engaged in STEM fields.
But small urban cities like Erie often have limited availability of these informal science, technology, engineering and math learning environments.
That’s why Aoh’s Feeding Minds and Families initiative and Gannon University’s Robotics Development, or GUBotDev – including Gannon Lab Engineer Nick Devine and mechanical engineering graduate student Christopher Devine – have teamed up to bring STEM learning directly to the homes of many of Erie’s urban youth.
As a lead partner of Strong Vincent Middle School, Gannon helps to mobilize community assets and coordinate resources that support students and their families and remove barriers to learning for success in and out of the school in conjunction with United Way, Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield, and Erie’s Public Schools.
As part of the initiative, the team designed and created interactive STEM learning activities to be delivered in STEM kits to more than 70 students at both Strong Vincent Middle School and East Middle School.
Andrew Sipple, an AmeriCorp VISTA with Lake Effect Leaders, delivers a STEM kit to a local student.
“Kids at these ages (11-14) are naturally curious and love to tinker,” Aoh said. “But doing STEM for fun sometimes requires a little instruction and supplies that aren’t necessarily what you would have just laying around.”
The kits provided resources to students to teach them specifically about environmental sustainability. As part of this, students built a bird house using upcycled water bottles, egg cartons and other material with complimentary educational pamphlets.
A student enjoys an interactive activity provided in a STEM kit.
They also built and tested the power output of renewable energy devices including a wind turbine, water wheel and solar panel, and tested the acidity of melted snow using a carbon filter. Through a family-oriented activity, students also used GUBotDev 3D-printed coins to “invest” into 10 different green technologies to simulate real-world investments.
Aoh said each activity incorporates multiple fields like engineering, environmental science and chemistry “to show students how STEM is integral to so many different parts of society.” This is the third STEM kit delivery since Summer 2020.
The kits also break down barriers for who can participate in STEM learning and who can not, Aoh said.
“The City of Erie is considered an underserved area and the demographics of the school district are highly underrepresented in the STEM fields in general,” Aoh said. “There is not a lot of racial diversity in many of the STEM fields. On a national level, that’s something that many people are looking for is to provide access and inclusion into STEM fields, so this is our effort to help all of our students see that STEM can be for them, too.”
Aoh began her research measuring the impact of informal STEM activities through a Cooney-Jackman Endowed Professorship in partnership with Erie-GAINS in 2011.
In 2018, she launched Feeding Minds and Families as an after-school program to create interest in STEM fields among Strong Vincent Middle School students through initial funding from the American Society for Cell Biology’s new Public Engagement grants. It has since been funded through a Department of Education Supplemental STEM grant awarded through GO College and donations through Erie Insurance via the Pennsylvania Education Initiative Tax Credits.
The STEM kits provided resources to teach kids about specific STEM-related topics.
Aoh said the after-school program was going strong early last spring but had to be canceled at the onset of the pandemic. The program typically includes hands-on activities followed by a family meal with local leaders in STEM fields.
“With the uncertainty of the upcoming year, I wasn’t sure if we were going to be able to continue that program. However, we wanted to find a way to continue to support informal STEM learning for youth in these schools,” Aoh said of the decision to launch the STEM kit delivery initiative.
GUBotDev supports STEM-related projects, outreach and research both within Gannon and the Erie community, so Christopher Devine said his group has always been happy to partner with groups like Feeding Minds and Families.
“All of the members of our group were inspired to be in the STEM field at some point growing up, so if we can inspire any of these students with our 3D printers, drones or these fun STEM activity kits, we are happy and proud to do so,” Devine said.
“If we can inspire any of these students with our 3D printers, drones or these fun STEM activity kits, we are happy and proud to do so.” - Christopher Devine
The initiative also garnered support from community members including Andrew Sipple, an AmeriCorp VISTA with Lake Effect Leaders hired through Erie-GAINS, Maile Chang, a senior biology and secondary education student and research assistant at Gannon, and Taylor Ryan, a senior biology student. Erie Bank, Erie Insurance, the Presque Isle Audobon Society, and GO College also sponsored the initiative through monetary and material contributions.
Barbara Priestap, director of GO College, said Gannon’s biology and engineering departments have been collaborating with GO College for the past four or five years to provide engaging activities for students including 3D printing, constructing robots, building fold-scope microscopes, and collecting water samples on Gannon’s Environaut.
“These types of collaborative events create inspiring and educational opportunities for our students,” Priestap said. “The support and creative effort that Gannon faculty and staff provides us truly changes the trajectory of our students' lives."