By the time undergraduate students reach Penn State, many have already experienced the educational “a-ha moment” that will determine the course of their college experience. These early experiences are crucial in the formation of the next generation of scientists, which is why Professor of Chemistry Scott Showalter recently traveled to Telluride,Colorado to lead a day camp for students between the ages of eight and thirteen who are interested in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).
Chemistry is the Solution, is the brainchild of Dr. Showalter and the Pinhead Institute, a Smithsonian affiliate that runs a broad range of science education and outreach activities in southwestern Colorado. Chemistry is the Solution grew out of Dr. Showalter’s work with the Punk Science Seminar Series, one the of the Pinhead Institute’s summer programs. Over the past two years, Dr. Showalter presented four seminars on sugar metabolism and mining chemistry respectively. “These seminars were huge hits with the participating youth and their parents,” he explains, “while working with Pinhead on these seminars, we hatched the idea to build a full, week long, day camp around me as the leader.”
This summer, Chemistry is the Solution hosted fifteen students for a week of science. Dr. Showalter worked with educators at the Pinhead Institute to develop an innovative curriculum that introduces campers to fundamental concepts in chemistry in the context of contemporary societal challenges.
Each day, the campers worked through activities designed to spark creative thinking about the problems chemistry can solve, with a special emphasis on the hurdles facing their own community. Campers learned about the chemistry of the abandoned mines and in the mine drainage settling pits in Telluride, the importance of new fuel sources, such as hydrogen, and the need for advanced batteries in order to harness many “carbon alternative” fuel sources. “Our goal is to get students excited about chemistry and to see it not as the cause of our world's problems but the solution,” explains Dr. Showalter.
Dr. Showalter notes, providing these enriching experiences is vital to inspiring the next generation of chemists, “If we are going to succeed in solving the grand challenges we face as a global community, we need to excite students with an affinity for STEM to commit themselves to careers in chemistry.” He adds that it’s important to reach students in their early teenage years, as their academic interests begin to solidify. “I have done a lot of work in with the Higher Achievement Program, which brings middle school students to Penn State for immersive experiences,” he explains, “through this activity it has become clear to me that this is a formative educational stage and a very important time to reach students who are transitioning from being kids who explore just about anything into scholars who are beginning to form their self-conceptions and educational interests...I hope that we will encourage more inclusive and also more plentiful engagement in chemistry and STEM.”
Although the camp’s goals center around the big-picture problems facing the scientific community, on another level, the camp is all about making a difference in the lives of young scientists, a cause that has personal significance for Dr. Showalter. “Someone else provided the enrichment that sparked my own interest in science,” he says, “and there is deep satisfaction to be had in paying that investment forward.”