A passion for science: Seton Hill program pairs college, high schools with STEM education

It took only seconds, but the soft shuffle of paper fluttering to the floor quickly enthralled a class of Jeannette High School students last week learning about “Whirlybird Physics.”

Over the course of a 40-minute physics class led by Seton Hill University seniors Mackenzie Longo and Brady Whalen, students stretched to their tippy toes before dropping a paper whirlybird and timing how long it took to fall to the floor.

The lesson was part of Seton Hill’s Future Scholars Program, created last year to get K-12 students back in a science lab after the pandemic disrupted in-person classes. Piloted at Jeannette and Penn Hills Charter School of Entrepreneurship, the program aims to introduce younger learners to STEM professions and
show they are attainable careers.

STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math.

“Eventually, some of these kids are going to go to college and they’re going to be with people my age, so really just having that exposure, hearing different voices who all have a passion for science, I just think that’s really important,” said Whalen, who is studying biology and secondary education.

The program was the brainchild of Amalene Cooper-Morgan, a Seton Hill assistant chemistry professor, who saw her son go from taking in-person labs to watching experiments on YouTube.

“The pandemic had put so much pressure on the K-12 system, I thought, ‘What is a way I can help get kids the STEM exposure they need and help out the K-12 teachers at the same time?’ ” Cooper-Morgan said. “We have lots of (Seton Hill) juniors and seniors that are constantly looking for ways to give back. … I thought I could tap into those students.”

After the idea was pitched to Jeannette and Penn Hills Charter School, the program took off.

Seton Hill students first create a lesson plan and experiment aimed at elementary and secondary classes. Those plans are presented to science teachers at participating schools, and a time is arranged when the university students can come in to conduct the lesson.

“I think that it’s a really nice way to show that science is all around us,” said Longo, who last week asked students to relate whirlybirds to real-world things such as helicopters. “I always try to make a real-world connection because so often you hear students that are like, ‘When am I ever going to use this?’ ”

For Longo, one of nine Seton Hill students participating in the program this fall, Future Scholars is twofold.

While she is exposing students to a career in science, she is also showing girls that the door to a career in science, technology, engineering or math is open to anyone.

“For other young women to see that I’m doingthis is really important to me, because I think if you can see her, you can be her,” Longo said.

Kayla Matson and Mackenzie Lewis, both Jeannette seniors, participated in lessons taught by Longo and Whalen last week.

Matson, who is considering a career in nutrition, said the program is helpful because she is a visual learner and it “helps to see what I’m doing.”

Lewis is considering a nursing career.

“It’s nice when we get to interact with them so we can get another look on what we want to do,” Lewis said. “It’s a good example.”

A growing program

Despite it being only the second year for the program, it has begun to expand.

Greensburg Salem joined this year, and officials are talking with Penn-Trafford and Clairton school districts to gauge interest.

Cooper-Morgan hopes to see the program extend into other academic disciplines.

“I feel like experiential learning programs are not just unique to science, so I would like to see it branch out to include business, entrepreneurship and see more disciplines get involved and have more access to Seton Hill in terms of the resources and the types of programs we run here,” Cooper-Morgan said.

The program has proved beneficial for participating school districts.

“What’s really exciting is these students are able to spend so much time planning and preparing and thinking through a lesson and providing a hands-on experience that our students are super-excited to enjoy that lesson,” said Penn Hills Charter School Principal Jessica Zuk.

At Jeannette, science teacher Bryan Edwards has seen how the program piques student interest by bringing in younger teachers and providing hands-on opportunities.

“It’s something we’ve never done before, and it’s really beneficial for our kids,” Edwards said.

Megan Tomasic is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Megan by email at mtomasic@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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