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Middle-Schoolers Explore Labs, Careers in STEM Fields

'Tweens Tour ETIC, Engineering Facilities

UMass Lowell Image
Lowell middle-school students listen to microscopy expert Christopher Santeufemio, seated, as he explains how a scanning electron microscope works.

By Edwin L. Aguirre

“It was a great experience.” “A fun, pretty cool trip.” “I learned things I didn’t know about.” “Really amazing!”

These are just some of the comments shared by students from Lowell public middle schools who recently visited North Campus as part of the University’s multi-pronged outreach strategy to recruit more students into pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

“UMass Lowell is attacking head-on the shortage of U.S. graduates in the STEM fields,” says plastics engineering Prof. David Kazmer, who was an organizer of the event. “The effort will pay many dividends well into the future.” 

A total of about 400 seventh- and eighth-grade students from Bartlett, Butler, Daley, Pyne Arts, Robinson, Stoklosa, Sullivan and Wang schools toured the University, arriving by bus daily for a week starting April 8.  

“For many of them, this was their first time on a college campus,” says Kazmer. 

Kazmer gave the young visitors an introduction to UMass Lowell and the STEM fields while Earl Ada, Ph.D., and Christopher Santeufemio of the Campus Materials Characterization Laboratory provided demonstrations of cutting-edge equipment at the University’s new Emerging Technologies and Innovation Center (ETIC), including a scanning electron microscope.

“This R&D facility offers specialized, world-class laboratories in engineering, nanotechnology, life sciences and advanced manufacturing,” says Ada. He says the ETIC will soon house a focused ion-beam scanning electron microscope, which will allow the manufacturing and inspection of components at the nano scale.

In addition to the ETIC, the students visited the University’s popular Baseball Research Lab, the award-winning concrete canoe and the new Katen Learning Commons at Lydon Library, where students can meet and study in small groups.

“I told my mom what kind of interesting stuff UMass Lowell has and how I wanted to go to college there and take engineering,” says Tyler Gagne, an eighth-grader at Bartlett Community Partnership School.

Increasing Awareness in STEM Opportunities

Martha Cohn, chair of Lowell Public School’s Vertical Science Team, believes that such exposure can change students’ lives.

“Many of the students are just unaware of the opportunities in the STEM fields,” says Cohn.

UMass Lowell worked with Cohn’s team to plan the experience. 

“We didn’t want to just give them a field trip,” says Cohn, “so there was a curricular tie-in as well.”

UMass Lowell’s new UTeach undergraduate teacher-preparation program afforded a great opportunity. Irene Martin, a former high-school mathematics instructor and now Master Teacher at UTeach, led this part of the outreach. UTeach student-teachers developed educational curriculum modules about physical scales (from “quarks to galaxies”) in various disciplines and delivered them to approximately 350 students in area schools.

“Our budding teachers get valuable teaching experience while helping to educate and serve as role models to the next generation,” says Martin.

Prof. Anita Greenwood, dean of the Graduate School of Education and director of UMass Lowell’s UTeach program, indicated that “we are really changing the style of education to be more engaging and interactive — to help students work and succeed in ways that weren’t possible in the past.”

Students are exposed to STEM opportunities through an interactive presentation that includes small group work activities. MaryBeth Moriarty, a doctoral student at UMass Lowell and co-presenter, found that engaging students in dialogue is important to students discovering their interests.

“These students don’t want to be lectured to,” she says. “We’re trying to get them to think about societal issues and help them envision how they personally can contribute.”

Students in middle school are often unaware that their course selection upon entering high school can actually preclude them from pursuing STEM careers in college.

“Students really need to take algebra in their freshman year and complete biology, chemistry and physics during high school to keep open all the STEM career options,” says Kazmer. “By immersing them in a real STEM environment and providing some practical guidance, we hope that this experience helps each student to realize their potential.”