Leianna Gallego from Newport News, Virginia spent her first weekend of summer listening to music, playing video games, and learning about the history of additive manufacturing. All of these activities, from the science of DJing to a 3-D printing tutorial, were part of the STEM Summer Workshop — a free educational program hosted by the Biocomplexity Institute of Virginia Tech.

“With this workshop, we’re targeting students who are right at that critical moment of trying to decide what they might want to study in college,” said Shernita Lee, an education and outreach specialist at the Biocomplexity Institute. “For some, STEM majors might seem too intimidating to even consider, but these kinds of hands-on activities provide a fun, low-pressure way to explore what these fields have to offer.”

In 2012, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics described science, technology, engineering, and mathematics-related occupations as the “jobs of the future,” projecting 9 million new positions would be created in these areas by 2022.

While this trend is certainly promising, the barrier for entry into some STEM jobs can be extremely high. These fields are evolving quickly and qualified candidates are expected to have expertise in a number of related areas. In order for today’s students to be competitive, educators say they need to be exposed to STEM activities early and often.

"My own field is computational biology, a discipline that didn’t even exist 10 years ago, and it really demands a mix of science, math, and engineering courses,” Lee said. “Giving students this early exposure can give them a leg up to explore new opportunities in college as they try to determine their professional path.”

Fittingly for a program focused on areas of overlap between different academic fields, the STEM Summer Workshop brought together a diverse group of volunteer educators from every area of Virginia Tech.

“This year’s event organizers were the women of Alpha Kappa Alpha, one of the country’s oldest African-American-founded sororities,” Lee said. “They tapped STEM faculty and students from every division, so this really is a collaborative effort that represents the full range of what our university has to offer.”

As for Toluwanimi Ajani, a Roanoke-based high schooler who spent her Saturday at the workshop, she appreciated the variety of activities the program had to offer. But mostly she just had fun weekend doing “normal teenager stuff” with some of the coolest technology science has to offer.

“It’s great seeing these students walk away from our seminar with that glimmer of excitement in their eyes,” Lee said. “That happens in our labs more often than you might think.” 

Written by Dan Rosplock.

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