STEMversity

Toxicologist Dr. Noreen Khan-Mayberry guided STEMversity students through an experiment early this week where they exposed radish seeds to different levels of chemicals to note the toxic effects. STEMversity is a month-long program, with two weeks apiece dedicated to high school and middle school students, showing kids the different career fields they can enter with a degree in science.

MILLEDGEVILLE, Ga. — The STEMversity Forensic Academy for Students and Teachers continues this week and next with programming for local public high school students.

The summer academy was started by Darrell Davis, a retired Drug Enforcement Agency lab director, and Ella Davis, who has an extensive background in chemistry, in order to get kids and minorities in particular interested in forensics careers.

Thanks to a grant from the National Institute of Standards and Technology, STEMversity is being held on the local Central Georgia Technical College campus. Dr. Ivan Allen, president of CGTC, was among the many guests present Tuesday afternoon to see firsthand the impact the program is having on the 20 young participants.

"To see kids invested at this level in science and STEM fields and to see these young people interacting with one another, this brand of learning is what we need in our community," said Allen. "Imagine the impact this program's going to make on some of these kids. I just talked to a REACH scholar who's talking about being a biologist. He's in the 10th grade, and I didn't know what I wanted to do in the 10th grade. This helps these kids sharpen their focus and motivates them to stay in the game."

The CGTC president and Baldwin County Schools Superintendent Dr. Noris Price walked into the laboratory and were greeted by students buzzing about their ongoing experiments. Price was as pleased as Allen since increasing the number of STEM projects in the classroom has been a recent goal for the local school district.

"I am just so impressed with what I'm seeing and the interest of the kids," the superintendent said. "I have to thank Darrell Davis because he's the one that approached me about this grant — partnering with Central Georgia Technical College and STEMversity to make this happen. I think it's beyond our dreams. I did not imagine that I would walk in today and see this. What I see is we're planting the seed and we're letting these students know about the possibilities of going into those STEM fields. For some of our kids, that's outside of their scope of what they believe they can do. For me, it's hope and opening that door for them. I'm just very, very excited and inspired."

Darrell Davis, STEMversity's executive director, has professionals currently working in science and forensic fields come speak to the students and also guide them through hands-on experiments each day. The guest for Monday and Tuesday was Dr. Noreen Khan-Mayberry, a toxicologist who lends her expertise to news outlets and also happens to be the world's first female space toxicologist working for NASA. She took the students through an experiment in toxicity where they exposed radish seeds to different levels of chemicals in order to see the effects.

"In toxicology we say the dose makes the poison, so they're determining whether or not the changes in doses will actually cause a toxic response or the chemical will not affect the growth cycle and the plants will be able to grow," Khan-Mayberry said. "They're just looking for simple seed sprouting, which will occur in one to two days."

Experiments like this one and others done throughout the camp help foster a love for science and also exposes the kids to what a career in a STEM field looks like. Khan-Mayberry said she received an overall positive response from students throughout her two-day tenure at STEMversity.

"What's been interesting is that a lot of people have no idea how toxicology affects us on a moment-to-moment basis. I talked about the fact that we've got chemicals in our air, in our water, and in our food so we're always interacting with something that could be potentially harmful to our health, which is what toxicity is. They've really been receptive to learning about that. It opens up their eyes to really pay attention and recognize what is potentially harmful or toxic to their health and the changes they can make to actually reduce their overall dosage or daily exposure to toxic chemicals."

While the two weeks was supposed to be for high school students, Davis said he had five middle-schoolers who wanted to continue attending after their two weeks was up. He obliged, so now STEMversity has young students learning right along with the older ones through the rest of June.

"Believe it or not the high school students seem to have more energy," Davis said when asked if he had noticed a difference between the program's two-week periods. "They're into more of the questioning. The first two weeks the kids were kind of timid and getting used to everything. These kids have come in with personality, questions, and they are more engaged."

Forensic experts from Iowa State University will also visit and teach kids how to do footprint analysis in the coming days. Looking ahead, the grant from NIST has funded STEMversity for at least two more years. Dr. Shannan Williams, a program manager with NIST, was visiting this week to observe on behalf of her agency but also ended up addressing the students about getting a job with the federal government.

"I think my background is not unlike a lot of these kids here," Williams told The Union-Recorder. "I came from a single parent family. I wasn't exposed to much science even though I was interested in it. I think that had I been exposed to programs like this growing up that I would have possibly gone a different route, so I definitely see the value in something like this. I think it's essential, not just to these kids, but to the industry, which is lacking in diversity and a steady pipeline of people going into forensics. I'm glad that NIST is able to provide support to a program like this. We're happy to work with them to reach even more kids."

While she said she was happy with what she was seeing, Williams did add she was working with Davis on a way to collect metrics to gauge whether the students are more likely to enter a career in the field of science.

"We're looking longitudinally how this is going to affect these kids' lives," she said. "We want to invest in something that is shown to be effective. That's one of the things we're really stressing from our standpoint."

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