A future chemist and engineer stood around a small, circular table, discussing the mechanics of the digestion of starch molecules in the human body.
Their work on this Monday morning was anchored by molecule models composed of green, yellow and purple pipe cleaners.
The engineer, 12-year-old Faith Brown, threaded a green pipe cleaner through a piece of paper as the aspiring chemist, 13-year-old Gabe Bass, watched in the courtyard of The Warehouse in northeast Wilmington. The children are part of EastSide Charter School’s APEX Honors Program, which provides academically advanced students with immersive opportunities to develop their skills – and achieve their dreams.
Only a few minutes before they began the project, the students were informed that their school received a $4 million investment to create a state-of-the-art STEM facility – focused on science, technology, engineering and mathematics – that will provide a space for them to explore robotics, coding and 3D-printing alongside a new science laboratory.
The investment was announced Monday as part of Chemours “ChemFEST” program, a school partnership initiative that invests in early STEM education in underserved communities. The partnership, which also included a $25,000 investment in Wilmington’s Serviam Girls Academy, is meant to inspire students to seek careers in STEM – with hopes to diversify the future workforce.
Nationwide, Black and Hispanic workers are underrepresented in STEM jobs, relative to their presence in the overall U.S. workforce, according to the Pew Research Center.
Similarly, while women make up about half of workers in STEM jobs, they are underrepresented in several STEM job clusters, including engineering and computer jobs, according to the same report.
Educators and administrators interpret the new investment as a way for their students to visualize themselves as the next generation of great scientists, mathematicians and STEM leaders.
The partnership will also give students the opportunity to learn from professional Chemours mentors in STEM fields, allowing them to see themselves in the same roles, said Aaron Bass, CEO of EastSide Charter School.
“It means that they can see their future, today,” Bass said. “For young people being able to start off in middle school, accessing top-notch STEM equipment and the mentorship from professionals means they can envision themselves there in the future.”
The center, in partnership with the Wilmington Public Library, will also serve as a resource to the surrounding community by opening its doors to the public and other schools – creating a communal space for career fairs and training events.
“I appreciate how Chemours is not just investing in dollars but also in their people,” Bass said, “so human capital is as important to us as financial capital.”
Back in the courtyard, the project with the pipe cleaners continued. Dave Everhart supervised the students as they made their rounds to the different tables, often bartering with each other over the different colored pipe cleaners each group needed to complete the project.
Everhart, a 7th and 8th-grade EastSide math teacher, expressed his excitement for the new facility and its potential for activities that would then make his students excited to learn. The center will also provide a more permanent setting on campus with increased resources for the students in the APEX program to develop their skills, he said.
The program is currently housed and runs out of The Warehouse, about a mile away from the school. With more equipment and a permanent workspace, Everhart envisions his students participating in real-world, community-based projects that aim to mitigate issues facing nearby communities such as flooding.
“I think that it’s the opportunity to be excited about something and the opportunity to do something worth being excited about,” Everhart said.
Before the pandemic forced schools to pivot to remote learning, Everhart was thinking of starting a 3D printing club that would allow students to familiarize themselves with a technology and product that they could then take home and solve problems with in an engaging way.
The new facility would encourage that idea, he said.
Similarly, Paul Webster, an EastSide humanities teacher who transitioned after teaching science last year during remote learning, described the facility as a “phenomenal” opportunity for his students to be able to explore their natural curiosity around science and technology.
Despite having to teach half of his science class through a screen, Webster could gleam the students’ interest to learn the subject. The new facility would give him and other teachers a venue to further the students’ curiosity and have them learn about science in an engaging way, Webster said.
“When they’re interested in something and when they’re really engaged, you can almost throw that testing stuff out the window,” Webster said. “They’re going to perform at a level that is well beyond what you anticipated because they’re driving their own learning.”
As the students finished up the project, one of them approached Webster, hungry and ready for lunch.
Webster obliged and the group of lively students filed into the building, leaving behind tabletops covered in fluorescent pipe cleaners and papers. About a mile away, next to EastSide Charter, the space sits ready and waiting to become a home for projects like these and more to come, driven by the minds of future chemists and engineers.
Completion of the $4 million center is slated for summer of 2023.
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