Area High School Students Flock to RU-N for Innovative Summer STEM Program

by: Lawrence Lerner

August 14, 2017

Twenty-four high school students from the Greater Newark Area got a chance to dive deep into STEM fields this summer as part of an innovative program called Science in Your City, run by Rutgers University–Newark and Jersey City’s Liberty Science Center.

The new outreach program, called t-STEM, brought rising high school seniors from Newark and Jersey City to RU-N for four weeks in July and early August. The goal: to expose students to various STEM fields and teaching, to facilitate collaboration and hands-on problem-solving, and to raise awareness of issues affecting the community and help the kids develop research projects addressing some of those problems.

“The idea is to connect STEM, teaching and community. At the end of the day, we want the kids to see themselves as college-bound and as STEM practitioners and educators,” says Dominique Smart, Program Coordinator for the Garden State-Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP) program at RU-N, who created t-STEM with colleagues from RU-N’s Urban Teacher Education Program (UTEP) and Liberty Science Center.

To that end, Smart and her staff had the students meet with faculty from RU-N’s Physics, Math, and Earth and Environmental Sciences departments. They spent two hours per day on STEM-related classroom activities, and took field trips to a coding center in Totowa, N.J., an astronomy lab at NJIT, the Newark Museum, the Liberty Science Center, and various community gardens in Newark.

They also heard from guest presenters, including administrators from RU-N’s Honors Living and Learning Center, a representative from the New Jersey Supreme court, and an education panel consisting of teachers from Newark and East Orange, N.J.

And they collaborated on capstone research projects, which required them to break into small groups and identify a pressing issue facing the Newark community. They then reached out to local organizations and residents to get input, created partnerships with relevant community groups, and put forth proposals to solve the issue in question.

Ikechukwu Onyema, a chemistry teacher at East Orange Campus High School, in East Orange, N.J., was brought on by Smart and UTEP Coordinator Ivette Rosario to develop the program’s innovative curriculum and field trips, and serve as Lead STEM Instructor.

He was supported by six current RU-N students and recent graduates who served as t-STEM faculty mentors, chaperoning field trips, facilitating classroom activities, and helping the kids with their research projects.

“This was an amazing opportunity to be a part of an innovative program affecting kids from the Greater Newark Area and their community,” says Onyema. “The students were outstanding, and their projects, which we called Action Research Proposals, were very inspiring.”

For those proposals, the students tackled substantial topics such as nutritional awareness, green transportation, local renewable energy and education. They presented their projects at a t-STEM showcase on the final day of the four-week program.

The t-STEM program, now in its second year, was funded by a Next Generation Learning Challenges grant secured by UTEP, along with help from the City of Newark’s Summer Youth Employment Program, and Garden State LSAMP.

The program began as a one-week pilot last summer, expanding into a monthlong curriculum that Smart says better addresses student needs.

“We got a lot of valuable feedback after last year’s pilot, which helped us put together a much stronger program this summer,” says Smart. “We’ll keep developing it and engage more partners, because it’s a one-of-a-kind experience for these kids.”

Smart and her staff also will keep in touch with the kids throughout the coming school year, holding seminars on college admissions and financial aid and running STEM-related field trips to maintain the students’ interest.

Not that she has to. Interest in t-STEM is growing. The program, which was open to rising high school seniors, drew 65 applicants this year, a third of whom were too young to be eligible.

“Parents and kids are knocking at the door to be part of this innovative curriculum,” says Smart. “We want to keep the momentum going.”