Bea Hardacre wasn’t exactly sure what area of study she would pursue — but if she could spend every moment of every day outdoors, she would. “I love being outside and I’m passionate about making sure there is sustainable, accessible healthy access to the outdoors,” says the 17-year-old rising senior at Hawken School.
Climate change is real, Hardacre says. She sees it every day and wants future generations to get the mud-puddle, hike-the-woods, explorative experiences she has enjoyed since she was young.
So, she dove into the school’s three-semester STEMM (Science Technology Engineering Math & Medicine) program “to try it out,” she says. “I thought it would be a good taster to see if it’s something I’m interested in.”
What she learned about herself, she never expected.
For one, failing is tough.
“It’s hard to come to terms with going through so many rounds of failure to get a success and that can be hard to comprehend,” Hardacre says. “There were days of failed experiments where one variable needed to be switched or one degree needed to be changed. When you grow up and go through school, that’s not usually how it is — there isn’t that hands-on, repetitive trial and error process that you find in research-based experimentation.”
Hardacre also figured out how persistent she could be. “And I learned that I need that hands-on collaboration in a future career,” she adds.
Specifically, Hawken’s three-semester Science Technology Engineering Math & Medicine program is a professional development-based co-curriculum that “takes a concrete look at the scientific process, how it works and how to integrate it into our daily lives,” says Lacy Chick, science teacher and director of the Paepke Research Program at Hawken Upper School.
It begins with Scientific Research I where students learn how to build a resume, identify mentors and study journal articles, which discuss what’s credible science. The second semester includes a summer internship that goes far beyond shadowing. They work directly with a mentor in a lab, conducting research that is self-
directed based on their topic of choice. The program wraps up with a semester of peer and professional review and the annual STEMM Symposium, where projects are presented and judged.
Hardacre’s topic: biomimetic composites with natural fiber reinforced, recyclable biobased benzoxazine resins. She partnered with Case Western Reserve University’s Dr. Hatsuo Ishida in the Department of Macromolecular Science and Engineering.
It’s a mouthful. In plain English, Hardacre wanted to find out how
natural resources could be used to create a biodegradable, recyclable polymer resin — the stuff in everyday products.
This way, petroleum-based polymers used in everything from grocery bags to cars could be replaced with a sustainable alternative that would not harm the environment.
Think about the junk and trash clogging waterways or landing in places they shouldn’t. Hardacre thinks about that all the time, so it inspired her research project.
She wound up placing in the top three at the school’s STEMM Symposium, moving on to grand-prize winner at the Northeastern Ohio Science and Engineering Fair, which meant a trip to the International Science and Engineering Fair in Dallas. “I got to talk to high school students from Japan to South Africa to Germany, and that was truly amazing,” she says.
“I had a lot of support from Dr. Chick and other teachers at school who helped me prepare by practicing public speaking and how to present research.”
Ultimately, she learned through her research that there’s more work to do — a STEMM life lesson. Basically, the esterification procedure she used to create renewal resources needs to be adapted.
But beyond the science, during the process, Hardacre made great friends and connections with doctoral students from around the world. “It was an insane experience to talk to people who have grown up all over and how that contributed to where they are today,” she relates.
STEM is so much more than lab experiments.
“STEM has become an acronym that is so commonplace we aren’t always thinking about what’s really behind it and real-world examples,” says Jerry DeCarlo, science department chair at Saint Ignatius High School. “When we can make connections, it shows what real science can be — it allows students to learn about research, get excited about it or even discover that maybe they’re interested in something else.”
Sampling STEM Careers
This was definitely the case for Gustav Kotlarsic, who graduated from Saint Ignatius this spring and will attend Kent State University to study aerospace engineering.
“I’ve always been interested in pilots and engineering since I was 3 years old,” says Kotlarsic, now 18, who participated in the school’s partnership capstone program with the NASA Glenn Research Center. Student teams are guided by NASA engineers via Zoom as they design and execute projects like designing a lunar rover wheel or a solar power circuit system that “fires” based on conditions.
With the lunar rover project, students generated plans that were NASA-
“Then, they 3D printed those and tested them over rough terrain to see how they did, writing about the results,” DeCarlo describes.
Kotlarsic says, “We were given the supplies and what was required, but we had to put it all together. Building the robot was perfectly fine, the wiring — but learning how to code to make sure the robot would do specifically what we asked like drive forward or backward and turn was tricky.”
During the project, Kotlarsic could ask the NASA scientists questions, including how they landed in their careers and the obstacles they experience creating rovers for Mars and the moon. “This helped put my dream into a concrete reality and set it in stone: This is what I want to do,” he says.
The capstone project concluded with a conference at NASA involving other schools that participated in the project. “Being on location at NASA was a great experience because we got to tour their facility, see where they do their resting for rover wheels that get sent to Mars, and the fact that this is in Cleveland is amazing,” Kotlarsic adds.
Sometimes STEM programs help students realize that a field of study really isn’t their thing.
At Saint Ignatius High School, an anatomage table offers a virtual cadaver dissection experience and is paired with lessons from guest physicians. The table includes lessons about suturing and laparoscopic procedures. The 3D models include complex cardiovascular and nervous systems and are true to life. And for some students, that can be a lot.
“In the Health Sciences Program that is open to students in all grades, we had a few who said, ‘I don’t think this is for me,’” DeCarlo relates. “STEM programs like this allow students to see what they like about it and what they don’t, so it works both ways. They can get really excited — or say, ‘Maybe I’m interested in something else.’”
Hardacre gets it.
A surprise she discovered during her lab experimentation: She loves chemistry.
“I come from a family of surgeons who love biology, so I figured I’d be a biology kid — but I’m much more of a chemistry person because I love experimentation,” she says. And, the STEMM program settled that “lost” feeling she had about careers before enrolling in the experience.
Not to mention, the STEMM program’s structure is designed to promote skills students will need to be successful in the real world, Chick says. “And one of my favorite parts about it is how they can take their projects and see beyond their niche or narrowed scope and make connections to other fields of science,” she says.
Several students have published papers in scientific journals during their time in the STEMM program.
“In science, publication is currency,” Chick says.
As DeCarlo says, STEM is more than the acronym suggests. It demands creativity, innovation, a hands-on nature — areas where students inclined in language and fine arts shine. Sarah Brown is the middle school science teacher at Laurel School, and she
describes an artistic student who clung to STEM projects.
“She wasn’t strong at memorizing facts but being creative was her strong suit, so STEM projects allowed her to learn concepts better than if we had just done cookie-cutter labs, a reading project or had students take notes on a topic,” Brown says. “Letting her tap into science as a creative person allowed her to make it all real.”
STEM is a fixer-upper, try-and-test, let’s-see-what-happens pursuit.
And STEM is outdoors.
“When people think of STEM, they tend to think of the T and E — technology and engineering,” says Mary Rouse, director of outdoor experiences at Cleveland Metroparks. “And while it sounds counterintuitive, those things are part of nature-based learning.”
Consider the design of a honeycomb or how plants flower, and why animals adapt over time. “There is a lot of engineering there, and as
humans, we take what happens in nature and do what we call biomimicry, which is imitating that,” Rouse says.
In fact, there’s a ton of STEM in environmental sciences with evolving technology, Rouse points out. So your outdoor lovers end up adopting STEM skills — and tech-oriented students can grow a love of nature. It’s symbiotic. For instance, the Metroparks has a few drones that can be equipped with sensors and cameras that help plot and map invasive species. They can be connected to infrared sensors to map and trace wildlife activity like an unusual sighting.
Through the outdoor recreation unit, participants can sign up for The STEM of Sailing. “Sailing is all about wind speed, wind direction, resistance,” Rouse explains. “There is a lot of physics involved, and understanding that is key to being a good sailor.”
For the younger set, drop-in STEM days like Mad Science at Parma’s Watershed Stewardship Center include weekend programs with hands-on exploration. “We find intriguing science and nature topics like ‘the science of Grossology,’” Rouse says.
Immersive learning with a STEM cart equipped for hands-on experiments happens monthly at the North Chagrin Nature Center. And the Metroparks is focusing on access to STEM with its second summer of Euclid Beach STEM Adventure Camp based at the Wildwood Marina. The free, full week of camp for participating underserved communities includes science and adventure like kayaking.
STEM also inspires “playing around.” After all, tinkering is a life skill.
At Laurel School, students participate in Rube Goldberg experiments, building whimsical cause-and-
effect machines that “bridge the gap between forces and energy,” Brown says.
“It’s awesome to see resiliency come into play because they will get the machine to work 10 times in a row, she says. But when it’s time to videotape or watch them, they go for it, and something is off by a centimeter, and it doesn’t work,” she says. “I had students who had to reset their machines 15 and 20 times before they got it to work. It was cool to watch them make those small adjustments.”
Another one of Laurel’s middle school’s interdisciplinary STEM programs is its Space Week where students are on a mission to colonize Mars. They create a multi-faceted proposal, considering scientific challenges, governing challenges and what the colony will look like. “There is a series of tasks they go through during the course of the week that include research and projects like creating mission patches on Canva,” says Sean Abbott-Klafter, social studies and English teacher.
“The project gives them choices to make and some creative freedom over the learning,” he adds. “So that’s part of the challenge, too. And, it generates a lot of investment and excitement for the project.”
These benefits extend beyond the classroom, Brown points out.
“Allow kids to tinker at home and let things not work out sometimes. Encourage them to recommit and try again. Let them in on fixing things around the house — sometimes they have ideas we haven’t thought about. This is the curiosity we want to cultivate.”
Now more than ever, naturally occurring trial and error is key for healthy development.
“Kids have so much information at their fingertips and have gotten used to using the internet when they have questions — and that can result in us losing momentum on letting kids be curious and wonder things,” Brown says.
At school and home, Brown says, “the payout of STEM learning is massive in terms of student engagement, learning, growth and mastery of concepts.”