Penn State Lehigh Valley holds 'STEM-tastic' event

Three students in a classroom

Students solve puzzles for clues on how to escape the science lab in a STEM workshop led by Samantha Beebe, biobehavioral health program coordinator.

Credit: Eileen Grodziak

CENTER VALLEY, Pa. — Most students don’t engage in subjects like fractal math, pendulum painting and escape rooms on a typical Saturday morning. But the "Design Your Own STEM-tastic Day" was anything but typical. The inaugural event held on Feb. 3 at Penn State Lehigh Valley gave students in sixth through eighth grades a glimpse into the many career opportunities in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. 

Students chose their top three of 10 possible workshops: Fractal Math; Robotic Basketball; A CSI Investigation: The Role of DNA in Forensics; Designed to Draw; Engineering Design Challenge; Make a Pendulum Painting!; Can You Make a Rainbow from Purple Cabbage?; Zombies are Real: Come See for Yourself!; Reading the Bones: Messages from the Past!; and Ready? Set? Escape Dr. Beebe's Lab!  

Larry Musolino, assistant teaching professor of mathematics and event co-organizer, said he heard several students asking each other about the different workshops.

“When students were coming in and waiting for the workshop to get underway, many were asking each other what workshops they’d done," he said. "In overhearing conversations about the DNA crime scenes or escape rooms, the students would ask if they could do that workshop ‘next time.’”

Musolino said the younger students had an incredible depth of existing knowledge about some of these topics.

“I was amazed at the advanced knowledge these students brought in," he said. "I was teaching a workshop about fractals, which most middle school students are not familiar with, and some of the students knew what they were. I was just amazed at some of the background these students had, and that’s a real credit to their teachers.” 

Samantha Beebe, assistant teaching professor and program coordinator, biobehavioral health, and event co-organizer, said the goal of the event was “to fuel the fire for these students who may already have an interest, or maybe they didn’t have that interest, but the workshops ignited their interest.”

It also gave the Penn State Lehigh Valley faculty an opportunity to share their passion and expertise with a different student population. 

The students’ enthusiasm and joy were palpable, organizers said. Their energy was a highlight of the day for Beebe.

“They were wonderful; enthusiastic, focused and so bright," she said. "They were so excited to share what they’d learned in a previous workshop — it made me feel so good. It was refreshing to see such a lovely group of students and that level of enthusiasm. That’s what really stood out to me."

Mark Capofari, lecturer, project and supply chain management and member of the event committee, was on hand to assist with the day’s events. He, too, praised the students’ enthusiasm, the middle school teachers’ work in preparing the students for the day and the Penn State Lehigh Valley faculty for leading workshops that kept the students engaged throughout.

“When the students are engaged, up and passionate, it makes the instructors better instructors,” Capofari said. “You kind of go back to that age when you’re 10, 11 years old and just enthralled.”

Musolino also credited the faculty.

"It took a lot of effort to put this together," he said. "I think the students saw our faculty’s expertise and eagerness to share.”  

Penn State Lehigh Valley student volunteers assisted throughout the day, whether at the registration table, in the workshops themselves or completing other tasks.

“We had about 20 [Penn State] students," Capofari said. "I was overwhelmed at their eagerness to support, the attention they paid to the tasks they were assigned to ensure it was a successful day for the Penn State Lehigh Valley campus. They consistently asked, ‘What can I do?’ and ‘Where else can I help?’ Their support was wonderful. I really have to thank our students, especially since they had to wake up early and come to campus on a Saturday morning.” 

Eileen Grodziak, instructional designer, assisted with various tasks and in the escape room workshop. She said the feedback she heard from parents was positive.

“I heard one parent ask, ‘They had professors doing this?’ Yes, we did! I thought that was really cute," she said. "Everything ran really smoothly.”  

The event was open to all Lehigh Valley students — public, private and homeschooled — as well as student-centric groups such as Boy and Girl Scout troops. Participating schools were: Southern Lehigh School District; Bangor School District; East Penn School District, including Lower Macungie and Eyer Middle Schools; St. Isidore School, Quakertown; St. Joseph the Worker School; Lehigh Valley Academy; Notre Dame of Bethlehem Middle School; Nazareth Middle School; Parkland School District, including Orefield and Springhouse Middle Schools; Whitehall School District, including Whitehall Middle School, Bethlehem School District, including Broughal, Nitschmann, East Hill and Northeast Middle Schools; St. Jane’s, Easton; Swain School; Providence Hybrid School; and numerous homeschooled students. 

Planning has already begun for next year’s event. For more information, contact Beebe at [email protected].