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Full STEAM Ahead

by Jenny Wells

(July 17, 2014) — Just because school is out for summer doesn't mean every student is taking a break from learning.  Many students from the Fayette County Public School's (FCPS) STEAM Academy have participated in labs and even undergraduate research at the University of Kentucky to further enhance their already innovative educational experience.

Stephanie Bamfo (left) conducts a chemistry experiment with her fellow STEAM Academy students at UK.The STEAM Academy (which stands for science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) opened in Lexington last fall, offering its students a blended learning instructional program, focusing on mastery learning, personalized instruction and opportunities to engage in resources at UK.  The school functions under a partnership between FCPS and UK (led by the College of Education), offering dual/college credit opportunities in UK courses taught by UK faculty and "near peer" instructors (undergraduate and graduate students majoring in education). The program is temporarily housed in the old Johnson Elementary School on East Sixth Street.

Student agency is one of the key elements of STEAM, as students take ownership of their learning by choosing their instructional delivery, schedule and learning style that involves real-world problem solving in topics that are of interest to them.

One of the students, Stephanie Bamfo of Lexington, did just that.  She is interested in pursuing a career in pharmacy one day but wasn't quite sure where to start. At the end of the school year, Sylvie Garneau-Tsodikova, associate professor in the UK College of Pharmacy, came to STEAM to work with the students.  Bamfo got her email address, and took the initiative to ask if she could work with Garneau-Tsodikova sometime this summer.  To her delight, Garneau-Tsodikova invited Bamfo to work with her in her lab full-time this summer.

Bharath Kumar (left), a doctoral student in STEM education at UK, helps a STEAM Academy student with a chemistry project."We get so many more opportunities (in STEAM)," Bamfo said. "And because we are connected to a school like UK, we are more likely to get to do more things than a student that has to wait until they graduate high school before they can get out and do anything. By the time we are in college, we'll have so many tricks up our sleeves that most people don’t learn until their second or third year of college."

The opportunity solidified Bamfo's decision to pursue pharmacy.

"I am set on pharmacy. I am a science geek and I just love the idea of researching and getting further into something. With pharmacy you have to go so deep into it and try to analyze every aspect of whatever the drug is or whatever the chemical is, so just working with that and being more hands on and using my critical thinking is something great."

Bamfo and some of her peers from STEAM also participated in a chemistry lab workshop at UK shortly before the school year ended in May.

"At the beginning of this semester they chose a few of us to come here, because next year we will do chemistry, and now we will have a leg up," she said. "We get to practice being chemistry students as if we were UK students taking chemistry. It has been really helpful even if we aren't taking this for a credit, just having the chance to go out and get comfortable in the lab helps."

STEAM Academy studentsFor most of the students, it was the first time they had ever been in a chemistry lab and worked with the equipment. Bharath Kumar, a doctoral student in STEM education at UK, helped set up the course for the students along with Christina Munson, part-time clinical faculty in the College of Education's Department of Curriculum and Instruction, and April French, from the Department of Chemistry in the College of Arts & Sciences.

"We had four months of chemistry classes in W.T. Young Library and toward the end of the year they wanted some hands-on experience, so we gave them the opportunity to be part of a lab," Kumar said. "We helped arrange the experiments, but we didn't give too much information because we want them to explore a few things on their own. We want them to get the exposure and learn how it is being in a university lab this size."

Kumar says that even before they began the lab session, the chemistry classes were never set up like a "traditional classroom."

"If they wanted to have a group discussion about a problem, they were welcome to go to a different part of the library, have a discussion and then come back," he said. "They thoroughly enjoyed that freedom that they were getting. A theme behind doing this chemistry process was not to dump them with chemistry stuff — we wanted them to gradually progress and get a feeling for what to expect. So, it's more of a head start towards chemistry, not just a pure chemistry class."

Transitioning from high school to college can be a struggle for many students, and Kumar believes these types of programs, like the chemistry lab in the STEAM Academy, should be incorporated into all high schools.

"Students need to get this type of exposure," he said. "They can do well in chemistry in high school, but they don’t know what to expect in college. These students in the program benefitted a lot."

"Personally, I can say that STEAM Academy truly is a school to look out for in the future, because even though it is our first year, we have accomplished so much that people wouldn’t believe high school freshmen have already done," Bamfo said. "It's been a great experience to get out there."

Video by Jenny Wells/UK Public Relations and Marketing. To view captions for this video, push play and click on the CC icon in the bottom right hand corner of the screen.  If using a mobile device, click on the "thought bubble" in the same area.