Perry High School, located 4.4 miles away from Carnegie Science Center, has undergone a massive transformation to reignite its teaching staff and to support student retention and excitement for learning in this beloved neighborhood institution. In the fall of 2021, Carnegie Science Center’s Center for STEM Education and Career Development worked alongside Perry educators and staff to co-create a plan to connect ninth-grade students with Carnegie Science Center, Moonshot Museum, and its partnering organizations in the space industry and other STEM-related fields.
The ultimate goal is to develop long-term, responsive partnerships that secure resources in the Northside community and develop collaborative support for high schoolers in this turnaround school. The immediate goal, however, is life changing.
Senior Director of STEM Education Nikole Sheaffer and Workforce & Community Readiness Program Coordinator Shannon Gaussa outlined a plan for on-site delivery at Perry High School to work with students directly. This was followed with a capstone experience at the Science Center and a built-in reflection period that provided students the opportunity to share their learning and experiences as they explored the world of STEM.
“It was a beautiful work on paper,” said Sheaffer. “And, as any project goes that involve humans, the variables that impact implementation are countless. We planned for meeting kids where they are. With COVID and its impacts on school, students across the board are often functioning both academically and socially about two years behind what we would see typically.
“Add some cultural tension, some explosive political turmoil, a dab of economic insecurity, and then head into a school with students that have largely been forgotten or written off.”
So, where does one begin? Nikole and Shannon started the first on-site day with asking the students a simple question: What is STEM?
Out of 24 students, three articulated the acronym. Over the weeks that followed, the duo worked with the students to construct, design and engineer challenges, and even fly quadcopters. It was the usual exciting Science Center experiments—but the interaction went even deeper.
“We talked one-to-one with students, learning about their life stories, the traumas they’ve faced, and the dreams they have to go to college,” said Sheaffer. “We spent time listening and learning from our students and adapting our experiences as we learned more about their strengths and challenges.”
Some days, the team started with an idea and then adapted mid-experience to reflect what was happening that day in the classroom. On other occasions, Sheaffer and Gaussa tag teamed one-on-one conversations with students about a specific career, a STEM topic, or a relationship that had nothing to do with the activities of the day.
“I had a lot of new experiences with the Science Center and STEM,” said one ninth-grader of the experience. “I had a fun time seeing new tech and using new tech at the Science Center.”
Another student added, “I learned how to be creative by making something new. It was fun.”
One student summed up his experience with, “I think the design process will help me as I continue to figure out my career path. Trying new things and learning from it can be a great way to figure out what to do.”
The work doesn’t end there.
“Because we are learning how to do STEM education differently, alongside the people we want to impact, we will continue to question how each program we implement not only expands opportunities for historically marginalized populations, but also is designed in concert with our students’ needs,” said Sheaffer. “Sometimes, that means talking about what is on their minds, not on our agendas. Sometimes the relationship is the gateway to content.”
And the programs are only expanding. Through afterschool programs aiming to improve academic performance and STEM interest with STEM Stars, through early learner programs including the Buzzword Pittsburgh Collaborative and Making a Greater Hazelwood program, and through early learner programming directly with Northside communities with PNC Foundation’s Early Learner Space Grant, the possibilities are endless for the STEM Center.
“The STEM Center is poised to reignite its original mission to serve a broad range of diverse learners. It will do so by undertaking a transformation of its strategic core programs, messaging, and approaches, by committing to community collaboration, overcoming barriers faced by underrepresented communities, and creating culturally responsive programs that offer different entry points to STEM learners throughout their PreK-12+ journey,” concluded Sheaffer.