STEM students build skills through state program

February 13, 2014

By Neil Pierson

Hana Keller and Pavitra Siva enjoy different disciplines within the world of science, but both are participating in a five-month-long program to build their skills in aerospace technology.

Keller and Siva, of Sammamish, attend the Lake Washington School District’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) School in Redmond. Along with Eastlake High School student Rahul Singal, they were included among the 308 high-school juniors in the state selected last month to participate in the seventh annual Washington Aerospace Scholars program.

Eleventh grade is often described as the most difficult year of high school, with the students preparing to take their SATs and apply for colleges in the coming year. The aerospace scholars program could help distinguish students and give them a head start toward their careers.

“For me, aerospace is definitely a possibility in careers, but I am a science person,” Keller said. “I love to do science things, and this is just a chance to see a different side of science that maybe I hadn’t seen before, a chance to find if it’s something I like.”

Phase one of the aerospace scholars program is a five-month process – the top 160 students earn summer residency positions at Seattle’s Museum of Flight – and Keller and Siva haven’t wasted time. They’ve already participated in online chat sessions with professional aerospace engineers at NASA to learn about jobs there.

Students must apply for the aerospace scholars program, but those chosen participate free of charge. Students who complete the aerospace scholars curriculum can then pay for an optional five-credit class in space and space travel through the University of Washington.

The curriculum requirements are satisfied online, and include 10 bi-weekly lessons, a 500-word essay and a final project. Each lesson typically takes 12-15 hours.

Keller has some prior knowledge of aerospace scholars because her older brother participated. She feels strongly about keeping her options open, because her brother wound up deviating from the aerospace path he seemed destined for at a young age.

“He then decided after his first year of college he didn’t like math, and he was going to be a computer scientist,” she said.

Keller and Siva are set to be part of the STEM School’s inaugural graduating class next spring. The school opened in Sept. 2012, and the girls said classes largely consist of hands-on learning tasks rather than lectures.

STEM’s curriculum includes a series of special lab classes. Topics include environmental engineering, biomedical engineering and forensics.

Keller said her environmental engineering class has been interesting – they’ve previously created a municipal transportation plan and outlines for an extraterrestrial society, and they’re currently building houses.

Students seem to be part of shaping the school’s future, she indicated.

“All of the teachers are really open to different kinds of things, and they have all of these different ideas, but they also let the students kind of participate in making the plans for the next few years,” Keller said. “And the students here are really, really hard workers.”

“The teacher will give us a project, and then by the end of it, the project rules or guidelines will be completely different,” Siva added, “because we’ll tell him, ‘Well, this doesn’t work,’ and he’ll be like, ‘Cool, we’ll change that.’”

Siva said she’s had a proclivity toward science since age 4 – she’s had dreams of being a rocket scientist or a surgeon – and applying for aerospace scholars seemed to be a logical step in that direction.

“I’ve been really interested in STEM for a long time, which is why I think that a lot of us came here to this school,” she said. “But it’s basically just further pursuing my interests, and I think it was a good choice, a hands-on experience if I get farther.”

Her work at STEM and with aerospace scholars has altered her plans a bit, and she’s become increasingly interested in becoming an aerospace engineer.

“I’m about 95 percent sure now, so I think that’s what I’m going to go into college thinking, but I don’t know if it’ll change then,” Siva said.

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One Response to “STEM students build skills through state program”

  1. S. Collins on February 15th, 2014 10:28 am

    My daughter applied for and was accepted into this program three years ago, though she quickly lost interest and withdrew. Although the goals are certainly noble, the requirement to complete the online component, which in our experience consisted of a lot of mind-numbing physics problems, before proceeding to the on-site, experiential component had the learning process exactly backwards. For a student who, like my daughter, had not taken a physics course prior to entering the program, the experience had the effect of dissuading her even more from pursuing studies of science or engineering. Perhaps hers was a unique experience. But as an engineering professor myself, I know well the value of starting with hands-on projects, of engaging the student’s natural curiosity in the way things work, before laying on the textbook problems and theory. This is especially important if the goal is to draw in students from lower socio-economic strata–men and women alike–and not simply women who would probably already be inclined to study STEM subjects, and have access to resources to do so, even without programs such as this.

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