Students lead learning during STEMposium

Emily Jennings/U.S. Army Garrison Wiesbaden Public Affairs
High school students Nikolas Fomby (left) and Joshua Kelly use robots and tiny computers to scale rough terrain and measure the temperature inside a model of a volcanic crater Dec. 4 during the Department of Defense Education Activity Europe STEMposium in Wiesbaden.

A massive supervolcano erupted in Germany, leaving a path of destruction for hundreds of miles and a total shutdown of roads, emergency services, electricity and other city and federal services. A team of engineers had to work together to come up with a response. Those engineers were high school students. And they earned points as they formed a response to the scenario, during the annual STEMposium Dec. 2 to 7 in Wiesbaden.

The goal of the STEMposium was to engage students who are underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and math-related careers so they may better pursue opportunities in STEM education, said Frank Pendzich, event organizer, who teaches engineering courses and runs the robotics club at Wiesbaden High School.

More than 100 students, 60 percent of them girls, came from all over Department of Defense Education Activity Europe schools for the weeklong event and broke up into engineering teams where they were tasked with solving the engaging real-world problem with their peers.

Students were placed in one of six categories: biotechnology engineering, green technology engineering, computer engineering, geological engineering, environmental engineering and robotics.
The engineering fields that addressed the problem line up with classes offered at the high schools, Pendzich said. So, the event gave kids a chance to figure out what career path they are interested in.

The STEMposium immersed kids into an interactive experience, he said. “So they feel like they are part of the solution.”

Anita Lang, an engineering teacher at Lakenheath High School in England, led a robotics seminar during the event. Her students were tasked with overcoming a set of challenges with their robot, then teaming up with computer engineering students to deliver a credit card-sized computer to the top of a volcano model to take a temperature reading.

“None of the kids has the whole picture,” she said. “So they have to take their knowledge back to the other team members to create the solution. It gives kids real problem-solving skills.”
Students also had access to the Maker Lab, where they could use tools to cut materials, build things and create items on 3D printers using design software.

“Engineers use tools and materials to solve problems. In order for the students to understand that, they need hands-on experience,” Pendzich said.

The students selected to participate in the weeklong event are not necessarily straight-A students, he said. “We’re looking for people who are currently underrepresented in STEM fields…who have not been given the opportunity for this kind of education.”

Pendzich came up with the idea for the STEMposium 10 years ago and has been leading the event since. He said he based the event on experiential learning, where students are in the moment and fully engaged. Kids don’t even realize they’re learning until they already have — similar to sports, he said. The scenario and topics covered during the week were complex, but easier to learn because there was a real consequence if the information wasn’t learned.

Spangdahlem High School student Ariya Turner said despite the “really long days” she had fun and learned a lot. “It’s way different than class,” she said. “We get to collaborate. It’s different when you have a team and they’re counting on you.”

Learning at the STEMposium is student-centered. Seminar mentors are asked to take a different approach than they would teaching a class. Rather, they adopt an equal role with the students, so they are exploring together, Pendzich said.

The event gave teachers relevant professional development, which they can take back to the classroom and use to motivate students.

Michelle Harrington, anatomy and biology teacher at Ramstein High School, who has been participating in the event for the last seven years, praised it as a positive opportunity for both the students and the teachers.

“The way we would like STEM education to go—that’s what happens here,” she said. “I feel like I’m not the same teacher after coming here. We’re so used to teaching one way, but it’s so important for students to think outside the box. The amazing thing about the STEMposium is kids are treated like experts. It’s amazing how they fly with the expectations. Because we are just facilitators here, not the experts who tell you what to do.”

Elyse Doyle, a student at Hohenfels High School, said facilitators at the STEMposium were nothing like instructors at school who show students how to work out a problem.
“They say, ‘Here’s the problem, you find a way to solve it and you find your own answer.’”

Besides the engineering work, team building initiatives were included in the week’s activities to instill trust and force the students to communicate with one another, Pendzich said. “I consider teamwork to be probably the primary component of what we do here,” he said.

Doyle said she learned a lot from her peers. “It’s a new way to collaborate with people; I need my team to survive, and they need me.”

At the end of the week, teams presented their solutions for the scenario to engineers from the local community who served as judges.

Pendzich said he would expect to be exhausted after a week of early mornings and late nights with no downtime. But he always feels energized after the annual event.

“There is a joy in learning here,” Pendzich said. “I can see it every morning when we wake them up. They stay engaged all day until 10 p.m.”