Virginia STEAM Academy puts middle-school students in class with RU professors


Dr. Orion Rogers, Dean of the College of Science and Technology welcomes 2015 STEAM Academy participants

Gwen Tupelo confesses she didn’t know much about nanochemistry a few days ago.

But now, the soon-to-be eighth grader can tell a different story, one about going to college for a week in the summer and learning, among other things, to make magnetic nanoparticles to test water purification.

Tupelo soaked in her new-found knowledge of nanoparticles through hands-on participation at the Virginia STEAM Academy’s Summer STEAM session at Radford University in mid-July.

"I was pretty nervous the first day because everybody was like, 'Oh, I know how many neutrons and electrons are in zinc, or whatever.' So, I was nervous that I was really behind everybody," said Tupelo of Charlottesville. "But, it’s been really fun and I haven’t had trouble because the teachers make it really easy to learn everything."

For five days, 63 bright middle-school students from around Virginia gathered on the Radford campus to indulge their scientific curiosities at Summer STEAM Academy, a weeklong residential learning experience for a select group of rising sixth, seventh and eighth graders from all over the Commonwealth.

The academy offers its participants extensive and intensive exposure to science, technology, engineering, mathematics and leadership development.

Tupelo, who is eyeing a career as a doctor or medical researcher, was one of 16 students enrolled in a nanoscience class taught by RU Chemistry Professor Francis Webster.

"Oh, he's awesome," Tupelo said. "He’s really good at explaining stuff, but also letting you figure it out for yourself."

While Webster educated his class in a Curie Hall chemistry lab about the ins and outs of making gold and silver nanoparticles, just a few steps down the sidewalk in Davis Hall, Information Technology Associate Professor Prem Uppuluri taught and guided another group through lessons in cybersecurity.

In addition to lectures and TED Talks, Uppuluri pressed the students test their skills through competitive capture the flag competitions.

"It has been a really great experience," said an articulate Aneesh Kotnana, a rising high school sophomore and Summer STEAM graduate from Herndon, who returned this year as a student teaching assistant. "I gained the experience of working in groups with other kids because we had a lot of competitions, and I think that brought us closer together."

The students were accustomed to competitions before the academy began. It's how they got to the Summer STEAM Academy, said Judy Stewart, who co-founded the program with Caroline Martin.

"The students compete based on their academic record, teachers' recommendations, and their in-school and out-of-school STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and beyond-STEM interests," Stewart said. "These are all high-potential students."

This year, Virginia STEAM Academy received 545 applications for the summer program, and only 125 were selected. In addition to the Radford University academy, a session was held earlier in the summer at Old Dominion University.

In addition to the classes taught by RU faculty, two other courses, mathematical modeling – geared to rising seventh grade students – and life sciences quest, were offered. High school teachers provided instruction for mathematical modeling and Virginia Tech Professor James Anderson taught life sciences quest.

Each class was split into two 2-hour and 30-minute sessions, one in the morning and the other in the afternoon, right after lunch. For the remainder of the day, students were occupied with leadership-focused activities and recreation, such as basketball, indoor soccer, Zumba and yoga in the new Student Recreation and Wellness Center. They also went for a swim in the Dedmon Center pool.

Radford University's Adventure Based Learning Experience (RU ABLE) helped with team-building activities, Stewart noted. "These students come from all over Virginia, and they don't know each other at first," she said. "The activities are an instant way to break the ice and build relationships."

The campus environment and facilities are one reason STEAM chose to come back to RU after its inaugural session on campus in 2014. Another reason? The faculty who teach Summer STEAM

"They are outstanding," Stewart said.

Addison Sharp agreed. A rising sixth grader at Swanson Middle School in Arlington, Sharp was a student in Webster’s chemistry class.

"He lets us do a lot of hands-on things, and he does a lot of demonstrations and explains all of it," Sharp said before the afternoon class began on day four. "It's just a lot of fun and it's great."

Jul 21, 2015