It only lasted seconds, but the faint rustle of paper fluttering to the floor quickly captivated a class of students at Jeannette High School learning about “Whirlybird Physics” last week.
Over the course of a 40-minute physics lesson led by Seton Hill University’s Mackenzie Longo and Brady Whalen, students stretched on their tiptoes before dropping a whirl of paper and timing how long it took for it to rise fell to the ground.
The lesson was part of Seton Hill’s Future Scholars Program, launched last year to get K-12 students back into a science lab after the pandemic disrupted in-person classes. Conducted at the Jeannette and Penn Hills Charter School of Entrepreneurship, the program aims to introduce younger learners to STEM careers and show them that they are attainable careers.
STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.
“Eventually some of these kids are going to go to college and they’re going to be around people my age, so really just having that exposure, hearing different voices that are all passionate about science, I just think that’s really important,” said Whalen, who studies biology and secondary education.
The program was the brainchild of Amalene Cooper-Morgan, an assistant professor of chemistry at Seton Hill, who saw her son transition from attending in-person labs to watching experiments on YouTube.
“The pandemic had put so much pressure on the K-12 system that I thought, ‘How can I help kids get the STEM exposure they need while also helping the K-12 teachers?’ ‘ Cooper Morgan said. “We have a lot of (Seton Hill) juniors and seniors who are constantly looking for ways to give back. … I thought I could tap into these students.”
After the idea was presented to Jeannette and the Penn Hills Charter School, the program started.
Seton Hill students first create and experiment with a lesson plan aimed at elementary and high school students. These plans are presented to the science teachers in the participating schools and a time is agreed upon when the university students can come to lead the classes.
“I think it’s a really beautiful way of showing that science is all around us,” said Longo, who last week asked students to associate hurricanes with real things like helicopters. “I’m always trying to connect to the real world because so often you hear students say, ‘When am I ever going to use this?’ ”
For Longo, one of nine Seton Hill students taking the program this fall, future scholars are two different things.
While introducing students to a career in science, she also shows girls that the door to a career in science, technology, engineering or mathematics is open to everyone.
“It’s very important to me that other young women see that I’m doing this because I think if you can see them, you can be them,” Longo said.
Kayla Matson and Mackenzie Lewis, both Jeannette seniors, took lessons from Longo and Whalen last week.
Matson, who is considering a career in nutrition, said the program is helpful because she learns visually and it “helps me see what I’m doing.”
Lewis considers a career in nursing.
“It’s nice when we can interact with them so we can take another look at what we want to do,” Lewis said. “That’s a good example.”
A growing program
Although this is only the second year for the program, it has begun to expand.
Greensburg Salem joined this year, and officials are speaking with the Penn-Trafford and Clairton school districts to gauge interest.
Cooper-Morgan hopes the program will expand to other academic disciplines.
“I feel experiential learning programs aren’t unique to academia, so I’d like to see them expand into business and entrepreneurship and see more disciplines get involved and more access to Seton Hill in terms of resources and the types of programs that we do here,” Cooper-Morgan said.
The program has proven beneficial to participating school districts.
“What’s really exciting is that these students are able to spend so much time planning and preparing and thinking through a lesson and providing a hands-on experience that our students are very excited to enjoy this lesson,” said Jessica Zuk , Principal of Penn Hills Charter School .
At Jeannette, science teacher Bryan Edwards has seen how the program engages students by engaging younger teachers and providing hands-on opportunities.
“We’ve never done anything like this before and it’s really beneficial for our kids,” Edwards said.
Megan Tomasic is a Contributor to the Tribune Review. You can contact Megan via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter .