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STEM program emphasizing immersion and inclusion aims to improve American society one student at a time

Program called “brilliant in its mission, timing and simplicity” by Harvard Professor of Education.

A video produced by students about the program is here.

A flip book created by a student with this story and photos is here.

Doylestown, Pa. - June 18, 2020  High school students participating in an novel STEM experiential learning program in the Central Bucks School District will be moving on to attend schools such as Stanford University, Princeton University and The University of Pennsylvania in the fall, thanks in part to a collaborative educational partnership with The Pennsylvania Biotechnology Center of Bucks County, a life science incubator for pharmaceutical and medical device innovation.

Described as “life changing” by program participants, most of whom are female or minority, many students will be attending college on full or partial academic scholarships, including one who earned a full eight-year scholarship to Purdue University that gives her the option to pursue either medical school or a doctorate as part of her scholarship. Seniors from last year’s program went on to attend schools such as MIT, Cornell, Rice and Notre Dame.

What is it that set these high achievers apart from typical public high school students?

The academic partnership they participated in combines an AP Chemistry class with an after-school program where students work on real world scientific research for human health issues such as cancer and virology in the labs at the Pennsylvania Biotechnology Center (PABC) in Doylestown, Pa. Students cite their ongoing immersion into true applied life science research for inspiring a depth of engagement, knowledge and personal outcomes well beyond traditional classroom learning. 

“My research is focused on developing a liver cancer diagnostic,” said Madison Charnigo, 18, a 2020 graduate of Central Bucks High School East, one of the three high schools in that school district participating in the program.  “It was truly impactful to be able to immerse myself for many hours each day, five days a week for the past two years to truly see how an idea evolves into a revolutionary medical tool. Surrounding myself with established scientists and driven peers allowed me to collaborate with others while creating a solution for such a complex issue that touches millions of lives. Beyond liver cancer, this research can be extended to diagnosing many other types of cancer to improve the effectiveness of current treatments.”

Charnigo’s ACT scores also increased by nearly 20% with a composite score of 35 and a perfect score on the science portion.

“This program was the keystone element to improving not only my academic performance, but it sparked my passion for medical research,” she said. “It was foundational to my future plans as it allowed me to receive a scholarship that provides me with the ability to pursue a doctorate without debt.”

Charnigo was one of three students selected to receive the Beering Scholarship this year, bestowed annually to the most accomplished undergraduate applicants at Purdue. The University, which typically receives more than 50,000 applicants per year, values the scholarship at approximately $500,000 in merit-based aid for out-of-state students and covers all expenses for one undergraduate, masters and doctoral degree. Her fellow graduates in this year’s STEM partnership program are attending colleges offering academic scholarships averaging more than $100,000 each in merit aid.

Oreoluwa Popoola, 18, from Central Bucks South High School was admitted into MIT, Princeton University and the University of Pennsylvania, but selected Stanford University. His research at PABC is focused around machine learning, with the goal of reducing computational times in early stage biotechnology research from days or weeks to just hours.

“My research project is the application of machine learning to life science research, with a goal of cutting down the trial and error times that otherwise make bringing pharmaceutical innovation to market difficult and time consuming. By crossing over coding with the code of life, we should be able to expedite bringing clinically effective therapies to market,” said Poopola. “The current pandemic has certainly highlighted the need to improve speed to market in the life science industry.”

“This partnership program is brilliant in its mission, its timing and its simplicity—its ability to be scaled,” said Dr. Irvin Scott, senior lecturer at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, who became familiar with the program through a chance meeting on a golf course with one of its founders.

“We need more students, and particularly more students of color and female students to become deeply familiar with and pursue STEM education—Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.  If education is the great equalizer, then this program has the potential to catapult economically disadvantaged students into better colleges and ultimately better careers in what could be the most important industries of the twenty first century—health care and life science,” said Dr. Scott.

“With the COVID-19 pandemic being top-of-mind, it’s been said that students studying the life sciences will soon surpass those that are studying and pursuing coding and technology careers.  If there is something positive that comes out of the Coronavirus pandemic, it may be that the best and the brightest students from current and future generation will now go into studying the life sciences, because that will be where they can make the biggest impact on society,” said Lou Kassa, MPA, Chief Operating Officer of the Biotech Center, who cofounded the program. “This partnership prepares students for success like no other high school STEM program we know of by giving the students real world, truly immersive experiential learning opportunities in our research labs. The win-win is that the scientist-entrepreneurs here at the Biotech Center get to avail themselves of some really bright, ambitious students who are willing to take on the grunt work of early stage, trial-and-error science that the professional scientists would otherwise have to farm out or do themselves.”

Dr. Scott Davidheiser, superintendent of Lower Moreland Township School District near Philadelphia, co-founded the program with Kassa while an administrator at Central Bucks. Davidheiser now believes so much in the power of experiential learning partnerships that he is incorporating third-party lab and collaboration spaces into the design of his district’s new high school. These spaces will enable local businesses to engage his students as volunteers in supervised, collaborative partnerships. Davidheiser has already successfully realigned the mission of a business club at his high school to implement experiential learning concepts modeled after the Biotech Center partnership. 

“At the Biotech Center, I saw first-hand the dramatic impact that experiential learning had on students, but also the win-win that comes out of businesses using students to do certain tasks,” Davidheiser said. “Giving the students the opportunity to explore different types of careers at an earlier age helps them hone in on their college prep studies, since many may not otherwise have an idea of where their career passion truly lies.”

Kassa and Davidheiser’s other co-founder, Tim Kelly, was struck with the advice that Harvard’s Dr. Scott gave to him upon their chance meeting on the golf course, later repeating his advice upon visiting the Biotech Center to experience the program first-hand.

“Dr. Scott told us this program can do so much good for so many students, not just locally, but --- assuming we can scale it --- nationally.  However, we must be inclusive.  We must proactively seek to spread these partnerships into underserved communities where accomplished STEM professionals may not reside, areas where there may be few STEM role models for young people to aspire to be like in their careers. Ultimately, that’s where we can make the most impact on American society.  We believe that by exposing and immersively educating students that may not otherwise be aware of the world of STEM careers, we can have a dramatic impact on American society one student at a time.”

With Dr. Scott’s advice in mind, and with help from students in the Central Bucks high school STEM program, Kelly and healthcare executive Joseph Rafferty initiated a partnership with The Chester Community Charter School, located near one of the most economically disadvantaged areas in Pennsylvania. The mission of the partnership is to bring professionals across various STEM disciplines to the school monthly and organizes field trips so seventh and eighth grade students can learn more about STEM career options before starting high school.  The goal is to help the students be more aware of STEM related career opportunities so they can be more focused in their high school studies and ultimately be better prepared for college and beyond. 

On the first session at the Chester Charter School, Rafferty showed up with an ambulance, an EMT, an emergency care physician and a fellow health care administrator who herself grew up in The City of Chester but was able to ascend to the presidency of a hospital after earning multiple college degrees.  Her message and those of other monthly speakers has resonated with both students and administrators at the school.

“In our STEM pilot program this year, students were able to meet different types of physicians, health care administrators and clinicians, biotech researchers, science entrepreneurs, philanthropists, energy engineers, construction executives and architects. These 7th and 8th graders were able to hear the life stories of these professionals first-hand which led to the discovery that many of them grew up in similar disadvantaged backgrounds. Yet through hard work, perseverance and education, despite their hardships, these professionals were able to become successful,” said Dr. Alphonso Evans, assistant superintendent at the Chester Community Charter School. “This mission is incredibly powerful especially at such an impressionable time in these students’ lives. The program will make a difference by reassuring students that despite the challenges in the communities they come from, they too can achieve their career aspirations. In some cases, it will be in careers that they wouldn’t even know existed without being a part of this life-changing and innovative program.”

Rafferty, an administrator with a regional healthcare system that operates in the greater Chester area said: “When I heard about this program and thought about the impact it could have on students, our community and society as a whole, I knew I wanted to get involved. Health care is the largest and fastest growing sector of our country’s GDP—it’ll be about a six trillion-dollar industry by the time these [middle school] students graduate from college. We believe that there will be a meaningful, well-paying job across the huge ecosystem that is healthcare for every student in our program that wants one, provided they are willing to work hard and earn a good education. They just need to know these jobs exist at a young age so they can understand better what they are working towards…what their endgame is. To me, this program facilitates the American dream by bringing awareness of opportunity. And it’s simple to administrate because by nature, health care and life science professionals are eager to help others, so it should be easy to spread to additional schools where the message should have a similar impact.”

Understanding the positive effect that their programs can have on students across a variety of socioeconomic sectors, Kelly, Kassa, Davidheiser and Rafferty recently came together with the assistance of students in the high school STEM program to initiate a not-for-profit foundation to scale the mission of inclusive experiential learning partnerships, just as Harvard’s Dr. Scott suggested after learning of their pilot program. To be known as the STEM Experiential Learning Foundation (aka “SELF”), the organization will endeavor to improve educational outcomes by facilitating win-win partnerships between schools and STEM-related businesses. 

“As we are seeing now with the COVID-19 crisis, great science can solve a lot of problems, or better, may help to avoid them,” said Kelly, a partner in a construction company that builds health care and life science facilities. “In our programs, we hope to facilitate solutions on a few different levels. We have great conviction about both the societal and economic impact that our educational partnerships will have if we can scale them, but we need to formalize an organization to promote our ideals of experiential learning, equity in education, career exploration and the promotion of innovation through scholastic-business partnerships in STEM. Unfortunately, as passionate as Lou, Scott, Joe and I are about our programs, we all have our day jobs, so we need full-time staffers to execute on our plan. Programming and staffing takes money, therefore the need to start a foundation to better carry out the mission.”

True to their mission of facilitating experiential learning, the foundation plans to use student volunteers to play matchmaker between schools and STEM-related businesses that are interested in hosting on-site classes and providing students with internships that correlate to the subjects being taught. A middle school program will emphasize STEM career awareness by pairing up STEM professionals with interested schools and organizing field trips for more immersive exposure, particularly for students from underserved communities. Students in the high school program will be encouraged to help mentor the middle school students. Both programs are modeled after the success of the pilot programs with the Central Bucks School District and the Chester Community Charter School. An early goal of the foundation is to, “impact the lives of one million American students in the decade of the twenties,” according to Rafferty.

“Since we started our pilot programs, our mantra has been that STEM education is the foundation for innovation and innovation is what made our country the greatest on earth. Without ongoing innovation, America will eventually fall behind other nations. A failure to effectively educate in STEM subjects therefore threatens the health, safety and economic prosperity of our nation. This pandemic has heightened awareness of the need for our mission.  We’re hoping to channel some winds of this storm to propel our program into something that benefits American society for generations to come,” said Kassa.  “If our foundation is successful in our mission, then something like this pandemic may never happen again.”

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Madison Charnigo: “This program was the keystone element to improving not only my academic performance, but it sparked my passion for medical research. It was foundational to my future plans as it allowed me to receive a scholarship that provides me with the ability to pursue a doctorate degree without debt.”  

Dr. Irvin Scott: “We need more students, and particularly more students of color and female students, to become deeply familiar with and pursue STEM education.”

Joseph Rafferty, MBA: “This program facilitates the American dream by bringing awareness of opportunity.”

Dr. Scott Davidheiser: “I saw first-hand the dramatic impact that experiential learning had on students.”

Dr. Alphonso Evans: “This mission is incredibly powerful especially at such an impressionable time in these students’ lives.”

Timothy Kelly: “We have great conviction about both the societal and economic impact that our educational partnerships will have if we can scale them.”

Lou Kassa, MPA: “Our mantra has been that STEM education is the foundation for innovation and innovation is what made our country the greatest on earth. Without ongoing innovation, America will eventually fall behind other nations.”

 

To arrange interviews or obtain more information, contact Ed Tate, edward.tate@hepb.org, 267-934-3475.