Susan Stewart, teaching professor (aerospace engineering) and associate director of undergraduate studies in the College of Engineering, was seeking partners at Penn State in 2009 for a grant called “Wind for Schools,” a K-12 outreach program. Stewart found CSATS and initiated the conversation that has led to the two collaborating ever since.
Since 2012, Penn State has hosted the Pennsylvania KidWind Challenge with over 1,000 participating students in grades four through 12, which expanded this past year to include regional competitions at three Penn State campuses — Altoona, Greater Allegheny and Hazelton. The University Park campus hosts the statewide competition with top winning teams going on to a national competition. The KidWind program has also grown to include a Pennsylvania Solar Energy Challenge, part of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Sunshot Initiative, which aims to make solar energy affordable for all Americans.
“I have learned so much from my experiences working with the incredible people at CSATS,” Stewart said. “They worked with me through the process of developing content for teachers and provided valuable feedback on my delivery as well as helped me to focus on the unique needs of this specific audience. I feel this experience has made me a better educator overall. It has encouraged me to be more in tune with my audience in designing my lesson content for my classes and also to be more open to trying new educational approaches and technology.”
Neela Yennawar, Huck Leadership Fellow; director, X-ray Crystallography Facility; director, Automated Biological Calorimetry Facility; and research professor in the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences, first became involved with CSATS as a graduate student working on polio viral protein structure-function studies.
Most recently, she partnered with CSATS on the teacher professional development program, “Shaping Authentic Practices by Engaging in Modeling of a Topic with Teachers to Explore Research in Science (SHAPE MATTERS),” funded through a Science Education Partnership Award from the National Institutes of General Medical Sciences Health Medical Sciences (NIGMS), National Institutes of Health (NIH).
“Collaborating with CSATS has provided an amazing educational opportunity for molecular modeling in schools and exposure to the state-of-the-art research capabilities in X-ray crystallography and molecular interactions studies,” Yennawar said. “It excites teachers and their high school students as they marvel at the three-dimensional structures of the many molecules of life and the cool function they set in motion. The molecular stories the students work on during the school year and present at the end of the year symposium could steer them toward a career in the health and life sciences.”
It’s that — the desire to show students what career paths are possible through STEM fields, that drives CSATS’ actions every day, say its staff. It also ties into Penn State’s unique status among Pennsylvania’s colleges and universities and the responsibility that comes with it.
“It’s the land-grant mission, it’s the ‘We Are,’” said Jeff Remington, CSATS outreach liaison. “There is hardly a corner of Pennsylvania that we have not served in some way, shape or form. To date, we have worked with approximately 1,100 PA K-12 educators, which has enabled us to reach 10,000s of precollege students in classrooms and informal learning contexts across the commonwealth.
“The experience of science education from when current teachers were K-12 students is often very different from what is happening in the research labs at Penn State,” Remington noted. “How can we give kids a sense of the opportunities that are out there unless we let them engage in science and engineering in ways that illustrate what these fields are really like?
“Building programs that translate the work of STEM researchers to K-12 educators ultimately impacts the learning and, for some, the career trajectory of thousands of precollege students.”