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Innovation Quarter News

SciTech: Engaging Middle Schoolers

Denise Johnson gets enthusiastic when sharing the responses she receives about the SciTech enrichment program she directs for middle school students.

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“One hundred percent of kids in the previous summer program indicated to us that they learned something new about science that they did not know,’’ says Johnson, a Winston-Salem State University professor. “And those activities really got them excited about science or math.’’

Enrollment numbers, too, demonstrate the growing success of SciTech, which began as a volunteer-run program but which is now supported by WSSU, Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center and Innovation Quarter.

The program’s goal is not just to engage the students through two weeks of summer activities and spring and fall sessions, but to instill in children at this particular age the desire to learn more about the so-called STEM subjects—science, technology, engineering and math.

By the time students get to high school, many times their academic paths are set by the choices and test grades they’ve received, Johnson says. Getting them to see these subjects as fun, interesting and worthy of their time can keep them interested in high school and beyond as career possibilities, she says.

“I’m quite used to kids coming to class not liking math,’’ says Johnson, a former math teacher. “And when you get to talking to them, many times it’s just a fear. They haven’t had a negative experience, but they heard about negative experiences. It heavily influences their confidence in it.’’

Johnson, who now coordinates a graduate program for WSSU students who want to teach in the middle grades, uses some of her college students to help out in SciTech classes.

The program offers a range of classes to a diverse mix of boys and girls. The program now has about 20 percent Hispanic enrollment, which Johnson is proud of because of the recruitment involved. As many as 150 children are expected to participate at the spring program in April; this summer, 60 are expected, many repeaters, for the two-week institute. Both enrollments are expected to be new highs. The summer program began with about 25 students six or seven years ago.

In those classes, they get a taste of how much fun science, math and technology can be, such as kitchen science or egg drops or what Johnson says is the absolute favorite, especially for sixth-grade boys—making slime. As part of the effort to get feedback, Johnson says children were sent home with plastic baggies for experiments they could do with their parents, and 90 percent of the parents responded that they’d never been asked to do science at home with their child.

“It was a catalyst for new conversation,’’ she says. “Doing those activities really helps them to communicate more with their kid. Some parents said they had slime fights.’’