Expanding STEM Education

By Nathalie Walker, Guest Writer; photo by Richard Frederickson, Staff Photographer
Portrait of Nathalie Walker

Nathalie Walker, former Werner H. Kirsten student intern.

Editor’s note: This article is written as a reflection on experiential STEM education by a student who completed her Werner H. Kirsten internship in June 2015. Here, she advocates for incorporating hands-on experience into STEM curricula.

If the only way for high school students to learn science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) is through textbooks, then count me out. But how then do you get students to learn STEM outside of the classroom? The focus of this article is to advocate for high school STEM education through experiential learning.

Tom Freston, one of the founders and the chief executive officer (CEO) of MTV Productions, said in an interview in Men’s Journal that “innovation is taking two things that already exist and putting them together in a new way.” This is how I view the idea of implementing STEM education in the lives of young people.

How would I implement STEM education? I would accomplish this through high school classes and STEM-related jobs or internships. From the research I have conducted for this article, I have noticed a pattern: the majority of all great innovators and educators within the past 25 years have grown up with STEM education. A good example of an innovator is Elon Musk, co-founder of PayPal, chief product architect of Tesla Motors, chairman of SolarCity, and CEO and chief technology officer (CTO) of SpaceX, all of which are highly innovative companies. According to Astrum People, an online success story magazine, Musk taught himself computer programming when he was a child, and, at age 12, sold a computer code for a video game called Blastar for $500. Astrum People also states that he went to the University of Pennsylvania on a scholarship, where he earned a Bachelor of Science in physics as well as bachelor’s degree in economics from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. In my opinion, Musk’s success was likely in part attributable to his work in STEM at an early age.

In an effort to encourage more future Musks, STEM education might be implemented for young people through hands-on internships, or experiential learning. For example, I recommend doing a scientific internship, such as the Werner H. Kirsten (WHK) internship at NCI at Frederick. I recommend this because, as I write this article, I am nearing the end of my WHK internship and have had a chance to reflect on the positive impact the program has had on me.

The WHK internship is a program for rising high school seniors. WHK interns have an opportunity to work in a real lab, with hands-on experience—something that many people do not get to do until well into college or even graduate school.  My “lab” is actually in the administrative offices of a scientific research institute, where I have learned about the administrative side of science.

The WHK internship has been a tremendous help to my future career. As an intern in the Office of Scientific Operations (OSO), I have learned that even if you excel at science, you also need to know how to communicate your experiments and ideas. Although I aspire to be a biomedical engineer, my work in science writing at NCI has helped me appreciate a new side of science, and one that is often overlooked—communication.

Another example of experiential STEM education is Michigan Technological University’s (Michigan Tech) Summer Youth Program, which offers young people opportunities to work in programs in engineering, science, and technology. My mentor, Melissa Porter, administrative manager, OSO, said her experience with a STEM education program not only shaped her choice of college, but it also shaped her career choice. She told me that attending the Summer Youth Program at Michigan Tech really ignited her interest in science and engineering. She took a course in geological engineering, in which she participated in experiments related to space science and meteors, and even visited the observatory one night.  She also took a course focused on biology and did dissections and lab experiments.   

“After attending the program, I found that I looked at what I was learning in my sciences classes in a whole new way because I was able to see how the things I learned in the textbook could directly apply to the real world,” she said. “So when it came time to apply to college, the only school I applied to was Michigan Tech, and it led to a career in biology.”

Experiential STEM programs help the employers in addition to the interns by fostering a mutually beneficial relationship. An employer’s job duties typically grow with time, as the place of business expands. So having an intern can lighten the burden of some of the daily tasks. By taking on tasks that the employer would typically do, interns gain skill sets in return, and these are skill sets they will likely be able to use in their future career. Employers who hire former interns also benefit because less training may be needed; in fact, employers may hire their own interns because they already have experience.

The perfect example of this symbiotic relationship between intern and employer may be found in the experience of Esther Shafer, Cancer Research Training Award (CRTA) intern, Occupational Health Services (OHS).  Shafer applied for the WHK internship in 2013 and was placed with mentor Sarah Hooper, manager, OHS. While an intern, Shafer performed a variety of tasks in OHS, and now she plans fitness events, teaches CPR classes, and much more. “A STEM education program expanded my knowledge [and] experience in a professional setting, and opened up my skill sets,” Shafer said. Now a full-time student at Frederick Community College, Shafer continues to work at OHS through the CRTA program.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, education requirements for employment are increasing, and the race to become successful is more vigorous. Students who participate in an experiential STEM education program will be a few steps further than those who do not take advantage of these opportunities.

I believe that combining the endless possibilities of a young adult’s intellect with the chance to use those skills represents innovation as Freston defines it. With these experiential STEM education programs, there will be future Musks and Shafers to make important contributions to progress in technology, health care, and other areas of science.

Nathalie Walker is a former Werner H. Kirsten student intern in the Office of Scientific Operations, NCI at Frederick.