It’s a party of more than 200 guests, one of the best Scott Grossman and his colleagues have ever thrown.
Yet it isn’t held at Restek, the Bellefonte chromatography supplies manufacturer where they work. Instead, it’s held at local schools, and the partygoers, potentially the next great scientists in the field, are there for more than just cake. They’re there to learn about scientific concepts and have fun while doing it.
“That is the challenge,” Grossman said. “But it’s one I particularly love.”
Grossman, a content developer at Restek, and co-workers Samantha Harter, Fang-Yun Lo and Titus Morehead presented in April at Park Forest Middle School’s fair for STEM fields sharing what they do for a living in an interactive forum. Using a party as an analogy, Grossman and his colleagues have done similar programs at area schools for about the past five years.
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It all started when Lori Dundon, a Restek marketing communications manager, implemented the idea when her kids were attending Park Forest Middle School. As interest grew with co-workers and other schools, so did the program.
“It gets a whole bunch of kids up on stage, and they get to immerse themselves in the topic and learn by actually acting out the science of chromatography,” Grossman said.
The “party” the group throws is part-skit, part-educational experience. Similar to how friends arrive a party and interact with each other, the process of chromatography involves passing a mixture of chemicals through a medium.
Depending on the degrees of interaction between the chemicals and the medium, the chemicals pass through at different rates and eventually separate at the end. When it’s done, scientists can study the individual components.
Students come up on stage and act out the party scene, learning the concepts along the way.
“They’re scientists in a laboratory, and we have them leave work frustrated but excited about going to this party,” Grossman said. “While they’re at this party, they have this epiphany.”
Jobs in the STEM fields are projected to grow by more than 9 million between 2012 and 2022, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. As a result, schools are placing a greater focus on related initiatives.
Yet the U.S. still lags behind other nations in terms of STEM education. The National Math and Science Initiative reported that less than half of American high school graduates in 2013 were prepared for college-level math and science courses.
Students can also feel intimidated by the fields. A study by the Lemselson-MIT Invention Index found about a third of students said they weren’t well-prepared to pursue education in STEM, they didn’t know much about the fields or that the fields were too challenging.
But with programs like Restek’s, both the schools and businesses in STEM are looking to change that dynamic.
“It is a growing field, so I think that the younger that kids are able to engage in the field, it’s great for them to learn the concepts,” said Harter, a process engineer with Restek. “But for them to see some real-world applications and be able to see people who do this every day, if they can gain an interest and move forward, I don’t think it’s ever too soon to do that.”
The team has worked with about six area schools and usually does a few presentations each year. Grossman said the business is looking to formalize the program further in the future.
“We’ve striven to be as hands-on and as interactive as possible,” he said.
But for Grossman, the presentations teach more than just concepts related to science and math. Like with the “party” he and his colleagues throw, it’s not just the message, but the medium, too.
“By getting them up on stage and getting them to act out chromatography, what we’re trying to communicate is that communication doesn’t have to take a traditional form,” he said. “You can communicate creatively. I think that’s something that’s important whether or not you go into a STEM discipline.”