SciTech Institute Inspires Students to Pursue STEM Careers

12 minute read

The two dozen seventh graders laugh and flex as they don blue lab coats and safety goggles. They are seated around six lab benches in the Atkinson Science Building on the Winston-Salem State University campus, peering at the beakers, microscopes and other implements in the room.

“Scientists!” Mesia Steed, PhD, calls, grabbing the attention of the middle schoolers to outline the next step in the research protocols. Steed, an assistant professor at Winston-Salem State University, is leading the group in a biology experiment to stain bacteria found in their own mouths, which they will then examine under microscopes. She and her undergraduate lab assistants will teach the students to stain and wash microscope slides.

“I love labs!” one student exclaims, putting on her goggles. “This is where the explosions happen!”  

There won’t be any explosions today, but she and 150 other students are spending two weeks in an immersive learning environment that will expose them to careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) through a series of field trips, labs and other activities as part of the SciTech Institute.

SciTech Institute is a community enrichment STEM program for upper-elementary and middle school students that was created by Wake Forest Innovation Quarter in 2004, with ongoing partnerships from Winston-Salem State University and companies across Forsyth County and the Piedmont Triad.

But SciTech is much more than a two-week summer camp. The goal of this affordable, inclusive program is to introduce students—many from underserved communities of Winston-Salem—to the possibilities of working in STEM careers in a future innovation economy developing in their own backyards.

The State of STEM

“Anyone know what this box does?” Martha Alexander-Miller, PhD, asks the dozens of eighth graders crowding into her microbiology & immunology lab in Biotech Place downtown.

It’s hard to guess what the beige box is; it looks remarkably like a printer. Alexander-Miller explains to her visitors how the technology measures fluorescence—“I know what that is,” one camper volunteers—and how that helps microbiologists develop vaccines. 

Just a floor below, a group of sixth and seventh graders watch a demonstration by biomedical engineers of an industrial robot, which can help the researchers test spine procedures. As the giant orange robotic arm spins and weaves, the kids pepper the engineers with questions:

“How fast can it go? How much can it lift? Can it lift a car?”

Another asks, “How do circus performers bend their spines so far?”

These SciTech campers are not only getting demonstrations of available STEM careers, but also of the technology that makes these careers possible—inviting the students to not just think of STEM careers in terms of the end-user but also the innovators who move technology forward.

In the United States, STEM careers are on the rise, driven partially by technology developing at an exponential rate. In the first decade of the 21st Century, STEM jobs grew at a rate three times higher than non-STEM jobs, and that growth is projected to continue. By 2022, there will be more than 9 million STEM jobs in the United States.

With the growth of this sector comes the need for qualified workers. While not all STEM careers require advanced education, more than two-thirds of workers in STEM jobs have at least a college degree.

“It’s important to get students interested in science and math by fourth or fifth grade,” says Denise Johnson, director of the SciTech program and a professor of education at Winston-Salem State University. “Engaging them early means they can get on track with the classes they need to take to prepare for college and a future career.”

We asked the question, how can we engage children who might not normally be exposed to that kind of career in a meaningful way?

Graydon Pleasants

As Winston-Salem continues to move toward technology and science as pillars of the local economy, developing a present and future STEM workforce is a key component. When the idea of what would later become Wake Forest Innovation Quarter was conceived in the 1990s, its founders quickly realized that its placement would position the innovation district as an economic driver of the city—making it crucial that they actively participate in developing that future workforce.

“By placing the Innovation Quarter in downtown Winston-Salem, we realized that one of the major potential benefits would be to help bridge the divide created in the 1960s by the construction of [Highway] 52,” says Graydon Pleasants, who has managed real estate development and infrastructure for the Innovation Quarter for over 15 years and is one of the founders of SciTech. “From the start, the goal of developing the Innovation Quarter was to benefit the neighborhoods that surrounded it.”

In 2004, Graydon, some of the other movers behind the Innovation Quarter and community leaders from East Winston developed a committee to figure out how to invite the East Winston community into the growth that would happen next door.

One area the committee identified was the importance of engaging children early in the kind of work that would happen here, so that as the place “grew up,” so would the workforce.

“We asked the question, how can we engage children who might not normally be exposed to that kind of career in a meaningful way?” Graydon says.

One of the answers to that question became SciTech Institute. And one of the people who helped answer it was Denise Johnson.

Denise joined the faculty of Winston-Salem State in 2007 and the action committee in 2010. A year later, she was director of SciTech, a volunteer position that she has held ever since. In her first year, Denise doubled attendance to the summer camp. And then doubled it again the next year. In 2015, more than 400 students attended SciTech events over the course of the year.

“When Denise came on board, her background in education and her passion for science took the program to the next level,” Graydon says.

Denise and Graydon both envision a future for SciTech where increased resources and support will allow more students to attend and expand the amount and types of activities of the SciTech Institute.

What is SciTech?

Small groups of campers dot the landscape of Bailey Park. They’ve just returned from an environmental science activity at Hanging Rock State Park.

“My favorite part was tasting leaves,” one camper says. “We also got to smell some sticks.”

 The camper is seated at a table with two other students and Denise. They are creating a tower out of mini marshmallows and uncooked pasta—ingredients for a design challenge they are completing as part of discussions on engineering.

While the SciTech Institute promotes STEM careers throughout the school year through various labs, events and mini-camps, the flagship activity is this two-week summer camp. Students are divided into three tiers, based on age, and attend age-appropriate activities. These tiers also keep campers from repeating activities if they return for multiple years.

The math and science curriculum of SciTech connects to Common Core State Standards in order to help prepare students for the upcoming school year. Denise coordinates with the school district to develop topics. Campers also receive math tutoring that provides them with a base of knowledge that will give them an advantage for the next school year.

The campers are finally able to connect the age-old question they ask in school, ‘What in the world do I use this information for?’ That’s what learning is all about.

Denise Johnson

“It’s a fun summer camp,” says Denise, who’s playing cornhole with campers in Bailey Park during their break. “We go swimming, play games and all that, but we also want to prepare students for the next school year. If we can make them more excited about what they’re going to learn in the next school year, we’ve really touched individual students.”

Many of the field trips are paired with follow-up activities that help them investigate the concepts more fully. When campers tour a water treatment plant, they come back to the classroom and perform a water quality STEM lab, where they experience collecting samples and doing water quality testing.

“The campers are finally able to connect the age-old question they ask in school, ‘What in the world do I use this information for?’” Denise says. “That’s what learning is all about.”

The Value of SciTech

At Paisley Middle School, a pod classroom is set up for a dissection lab. Paisley is one of SciTech’s school partners that provides space and teachers for the STEM camp. In the classroom, 22 elementary students in neon-colored safety glasses have descended upon trays of frog specimens.

“If you have lots of small round things in your frog, those are the eggs,” a teacher explains.

“I told you it was a girl,” one camper says, poking at the eggs. The campers all dive into the dissections, even if there are few disgusted faces.

With three tiers, 150 campers and about 40 partners, SciTech’s summer program has a lot of moving pieces. Denise keeps the machine rolling with the help of many volunteers: school teachers, business leaders, professors, undergraduate students and more.

Braxton Ford is a SciTech alum who now volunteers with the program. As he talks about his experiences with the program, a smell akin to frog-infused formaldehyde wafts from the classroom door behind him.

He will be a junior in high school this fall and helps with the activities at the middle school. When asked why he volunteers, Braxton says, “I really like science, and SciTech is a great experience.”

Making these experiences available for any student in the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County area is a key component of SciTech. STEM camps are valuable experiences, but most camps easily cost several hundred dollars.

“Many families in Winston-Salem can’t afford to send their children to expensive camps,” Graydon says. “When SciTech was originated, we intentionally founded it as an inexpensive option that anyone could afford.”

The cost for the two-week summer camp is just $10.

“Many of our campers would not have the resources to obtain these experiences if it weren’t for SciTech Institute,” Denise says. “But these experiences can make a huge difference in the paths that students take.”

Influencing the Future

Campers move through the cavernous Duke Energy power plant as engineers explain how the machines and pipes fit into the grand scheme of creating the energy they use in their homes every day.

From the roof, the hard hat-wearing kids crane their necks at the smokestacks and take in the immense scale of what it takes to create energy. The expressions on their faces make it clear that the hour-long bus trip is worth it.

“Awesome!” a camper exclaims, raising his arms in the victory sign as he walks through the plant.

Field trips like those to Duke Energy are influencing campers’ decisions about education and vocation, and the outworking of that effect is becoming clear. Now in its 10th year, SciTech is old enough for the campers who have gone through the program to start going off to college.

Ron Patterson will be a sophomore at Georgia Tech this fall, but when he was in eighth grade he got involved with SciTech as a volunteer.

“As a volunteer, I got to attend a lot of the field trips that the campers went on,” Ron says. “We took a trip to the Caterpillar factory, and it sparked my interested in engineering.”

Caterpillar engineers showed the campers around the factory and explained each step of building a transmission. Seeing how engineering was used in the real world influenced Ron’s interest in the field. Once in high school, he took some engineering and math classes, and today he’s studying aerospace engineering at Georgia Tech.

I’ve seen them return for multiple years because they get to see what the older campers are doing, and they get excited. Once kids get in, they stay.

Ron Patterson

Ron has returned as a volunteer several times since his first SciTech experience. Retaining campers is a hallmark of the STEM camp. “I’ve made friends in all the tiers,” Ron says. “I’ve seen them return for multiple years because they get to see what the older campers are doing, and they get excited. Once kids get in, they stay.”

That’s exactly what Denise wants for the students who attend SciTech.

“We want students to get excited to come back year after year,” says Denise. “We want them to be involved in the other programs that SciTech Institute puts on during the school year. If we can get them excited about STEM careers that they can see in their own backyard, these students can get access to an economy that they traditionally are shut-out from. They get involved in their community and can see a future for themselves here.”

To grow this impact, though, SciTech needs more help.

“We are exploring ways to take SciTech to the next level with more campers, more space and more community partners,” Denise says.

Sometimes It’s Just Fun

Back in the Winston-Salem State University lab, the seventh graders are now examining under microscope the bacteria they extracted from their mouths earlier. Despite the repeating chorus of “Ew!” that sounds around the room, the campers are riveted.

Steed calls her “scientists” to attention, explaining how choices like brushing and flossing can change what kinds of bacteria live in their mouths.

“We try and make it personal for the students,” Steed says. “This lab helps them see how science impacts them directly.”

Looking around the room at the safety goggle-adorned faces demonstrates how SciTech can make science fun. Faces are intent as they wash slides over beakers and swab cheeks, but the smiles are wide and frequent.

They’re learning about science, about their own biology, and they are having fun.

These moments are what make SciTech so important and keep campers—and volunteers—coming back. These experiences are building tomorrow’s innovators.

To learn more about upcoming SciTech camps, visit their page on or contact Denise Johnson by emailing or calling +1.336.750.8698.

If you want find out more about partnering with SciTech, contact Lindsey Yarborough by emailing or by calling +1.336.713.1452.

by Jessica Brown