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More than 150 middle school students from Sussex County in southern Delaware spent a recent Saturday learning about plants and STEM careers from University of Delaware experts and others from state institutions.

UD in Sussex County

Photos by UD staff at the Carvel Center

Middle school students learn about plants and STEM careers

More than 150 middle school students and their parents spent Saturday, Feb. 22, at the Delaware Tech campus in Georgetown and felt the shockwaves of “Exploding Pollen,” tried not to get too “Bugged Out,” examining insects in food, built environmental buffers for poultry houses with “The Dust Stops Here,” and sleuthed as plant detectives with “Plant Pathology Private Eye.”

The four science-based activities with an agriculture theme were a feature of the third annual STEM Girls, Engineering Your Tomorrow (EYT). (STEM is the abbreviation for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.) The event, coordinated by the Sussex County STEM Alliance and Delaware Tech Owens Campus invited the University of Delaware to design and present a full-day of STEM activities centered around agriculture and agriculture careers. UD enthusiastically responded to the call with a force of 30 volunteers representing faculty, Cooperative Extension specialists, agents, administrative staff, undergraduate and graduate students, retirees, and 13 Sussex County Master Gardeners. In all, they designed and taught the activities to both students and parents. The event’s mission seeks to inspire young girls in grades 6-8 to imagine themselves in STEM careers, an area where women currently are underrepresented in the workforce.

Erin Sparks, assistant professor of plant molecular biology, has attended all the EYT STEM events in Sussex County, traveling from her Newark campus to do so. Sparks presented the “Exploding Pollen” activity. Sparks, who also operates the Sparks Lab at the Delaware Biotech Institute, was aided by graduate students and Master Gardeners. For her pollen project, Sparks selected a plant, Arabidopsis, which misses a protein that functions as a pressure release valve. When the pollen takes on too much water, it typically explodes. The explosions, however, didn’t always happen on cue, or at all.

“We found that the experiment only had exploding pollen in about half of the experiments,” Sparks said. “While this wasn't my original plan, it made a great discussion about research and the girls generated hypotheses about why some experiments didn't work.” The students got it and enjoyed pulling out their smartphones to capture the success or failure, as it were, of the experiment.

“When I said we only had a 50% success rate, one girl even said to me ‘Well, yeah, that's research,’ ” Sparks said. “That was my peak moment from this year's event. Giving these girls a ‘real life’ science experience with the lesson that experiments don't always work, and that's ok.” 

Erin Sparks, assistant professor of plant molecular biology at UD’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources and the Delaware Biotech Institute, prepares her group of Sussex County middle schoolers to witness exploding pollen, one of four feature activities at the 3rd annual Engineering Your Tomorrow event held Feb. 22 in Sussex County.

What keeps Sparks coming back each year to Sussex County are the people and volunteers who share their passion with the students and their parents. “They spend their Saturday learning about careers in STEM for their girls, and the girls themselves who get exposed to new ideas and new careers. This event is driven by passion and that is clear in every single moment.”

Appearing at the event was a first for Extension Entomologist David Owens. Owens planned “Bugged Out” an up-close look of insect pests and pest management and how that relates to food safety and quality. “We examined canned corn, Brussels sprouts, and strawberry jam for the presence of insects, inspired in part by FDA guidelines,” Owens said.  “We finished up by sampling strawberries and raspberries for insect pests, in much the same way that processors, consultants, extension agents, and farmers do.” Middle school students were also offered an opportunity to eat fried crickets and chips made out of cricket flour.

“My favorite part was watching them change from being grossed out by the idea of insects in their food and touching a hissing cockroach to volunteering to eat cricket chips,” Owens said. “I thoroughly enjoyed interacting with the girls and I hope that some of them left inspired by the diversity of career paths and study paths available in agriculture.”

Middle School students create their own environmental buffer for a miniature poultry house built by Extension poultry agent Georgie Cartanza.

Alyssa Koehler, assistant professor, and Extension plant pathologist challenged her students to assume the role of “Plant Pathology Private Eye.”

Her second time at EYT, Koehler was joined by two of her graduate students, Lexi Kessler and John Bickel along with lab member Joe Cinderella who staffed colorful stations filled with visual clues, petri dishes and pipettes.

Koehler keenly remembers her own middle school years as less than inspirational. “I was in college before I knew about many of the career options these girls are hearing about as middle schoolers,” Koehler said.

Alyssa Koehler, Extension plant pathologist, leads a discussion at the table of future Plant Pathology Private Eyes.

Her students for the day investigated clues and mastered scientific techniques such as pipetting and looking for evidence through microscopes they built earlier.

“My favorite part of STEM outreach events like EYT is seeing the excitement of a student trying something new and visualizing themselves in a STEM Career,” Koehler said.

Poultry houses are common sights in Sussex County, inspiring Georgie Cartanza, UD Extension poultry agent to create a problem-solving activity for her first meeting with EYT middle school students. Cartanza built several miniature poultry houses, complete with motorized tunnel ventilation fans and colored lights to represent emissions from the fans. "The Dust Stops Here" challenged students (and in a separate parent session to build an environmental buffer — a structure or filter to capture dust and particulates from a poultry farm. The girls used hand-held anemometers to measure airspeed coming from the house fans before and after their innovation. Participants selected from a variety of materials and calculated the energy and the cost of their design solution.

UD Prof. Erin Sparks explains a plant experiment to middle school students at the STEM event on the Delaware Tech campus in Georgetown.

"It was exciting to see their ideas and thoughts in the problem-solving process,” Cartanza said. “It is a great opportunity for me to share with these young ladies and their parents how important poultry production is to Delaware and that farmers want to be good neighbors."

As part of her introduction, Cartanza borrowed a quote often attributed to the Roman philosopher Seneca, a sentiment she felt appropriate for entering STEM studies. "Luck is when preparation meets opportunity,” Cartanza said, adding, “Today you prepare for the opportunities of tomorrow.”

Cartanza also shared her belief that problem-solving skills go a long way. “The happiest and most successful people in life are those that have developed their problem-solving skills;  the better they are at solving problems and challenges, the happier and more successful they will be in their careers, relationships and life."

Anchoring the UD effort from Carvel was Tracy Wootten, an Extension horticulture agent. Wootten served as UD’s liaison with the EYT team, coordinated supplies, facilitated assignments and perhaps most importantly,  extended an invitation to her program’s Master Gardeners who relished the interaction with children.

“We jumped at the chance to participate. I wish I had the opportunity to participate in an event like this in middle school, Wootten said. “Making a difference in our community is important to me, and to my UD colleagues and volunteers.  Mentoring and outreach are what we love to do!”

“Our UD team effort was extraordinary,” said Mark Isaacs, director of the Carvel Center. Isaacs noted that representation from UD’s engineering, mathematics, and admissions worked together to coordinate a parent panel answering questions on how to encourage STEM studies and best prepare their children to attend college. “Our staff, and in particular our college, did an outstanding job in representing the diversity of STEM careers that are available for these young women,” Isaacs added. Isaacs noted that many of the activities will be repurposed later this summer for an Experiencing Extension summer camp based at the Carvel Center which will be open to the public.

Nikki Robbins, Engineering Your Tomorrow co-chair, lauded the UD effort. “It was a great event. As I walked around, parents, girls, and volunteers truly seemed to love the activities and discussions. UD definitely outdid themselves. What a great partnership with Del Tech, Sussex County STEM Alliance and Engineering Your Tomorrow.”

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