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COMETS program for middle school girls continues in May

Women in STEM symposium
The seed for the COMETS program was planted in 2010 when the campus hosted the “Women in STEM Symposium.” More than 300 high school females attended the event.
5/6/2013 —


10:00 a.m. – 2:00 p.m., Saturday, May 11, Conference Center

The next event of Penn State New Kensington’s new STEM program, Courses on Math, Engineering, Technology, and Science, also known as COMETS, features guest speakers from the health care industry. The program runs from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday, May 11, in the campus Conference Center.

COMETS targets seventh- and eighth-grade girls who have an interest in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) fields. Volunteer mentors, drawn from Penn State alumna and friends in STEM-related professions, share their experiences on career opportunities in their fields. In addition to mentoring and guest speakers, the eight-month program features demonstrations, projects and a monthly “Saturday Brunch” series.

“The program combines an online mentoring program with hands-on presentations in a wide range of STEM fields,” said Debra Novak, coordinator of STEM programs at the campus. “The mentors provide new perspectives on their careers, as well as perspectives on other STEM careers for the girls.”

The speakers for the May 11 event are three women in the medical research and medical sales fields. A hands-on activity for the students will be a part of each talk.

The two researchers are from the University of Pittsburgh. Kelsey Magee, research assistant in the Division of Pediatric Rheumatology, and Kathryn Lemon, Health Science Research Fellow in the Division of Pediatric Gastroenterology, will discuss their work and their academic career paths. The interactive portion of the talks will give students the opportunity to identify different blood types.

Representing the sales side of the medical field will be Sarah Reifschneider, diabetes clinical nurse manager for Medtronics, the world’s largest medical technology company with its world headquarters in Minnesota. Reifschneider will discuss her career and various pathways available to people who work in the nursing profession. She will provide an activity for the students that correlates with diabetes and healthy eating.

The COMETS initiative began in January when students were introduced to their mentors, and it continued in March with presentations by Engineering Ambassadors, a Penn State University Park student organization that motivates grade-school students to challenge conventional ideas about science and engineering.

“It was a great opportunity for the girls to interact with college students who are currently enrolled in engineering majors,” said Novak, who earned a bachelor’s degree in elementary education from the University of Pittsburgh. “The students asked questions about college classes, majors, and possible industries that involves engineering.”

Thirty-three students from five public school districts, Burrell, Kiski Area, Leechburg, New Kensington/Arnold, and Plum, and a private school, Mary Queen of Apostles in New Kensington, are participating in the inaugural program. Eighteen mentors are assigned to students, and they hold weekly online sessions of 20-30 minutes with their mentees.

The next program is set for June 8 and the topic of discussion will be industrial engineering, and manufacturing for coal cleaning equipment. Presentations and activities pertaining to computer science will follow on July 13.

For more information, contact Novak at dsn2@psu.edu via email.

Campus STEM Initiatives
STEM is a statewide effort dedicated to preparing Pennsylvania students for global competitiveness through a strategy of enhanced education and career development opportunities. The initiatives are designed to increase the number of students, especially females, minorities and the underrepresented, in the STEM fields.

The seed for the COMETS program was planted in 2010 when the campus hosted the “Women in STEM Symposium.” More than 300 high school females attended the event that featured a panel discussion on career possibilities for women in STEM-related fields. The panelists, Sara Sibenaller, software engineer for Philips Respironics Inc., Renee Leroy, research engineer for the Penn State Electro-Optics Center and a Penn State New Kensington graduate, and Amy Peters, senior bioassay scientist for Thermo Fisher Scientific, extolled the different perspectives that women can bring to these traditionally male-dominated fields. They advised the audience to take advantage of internships at local companies to gain experience in their prospective vocations.

Novak, who joined the campus community in October, coordinates the campus’ four STEM programs -- Kids in College, Green Environmental Challenge for Kids Outreach (GECKO), STEM Academy and COMETS. Her responsibilities include increasing the interest of grade-school students in the four core disciplines critical to the development of technological innovations. She develops and manages STEM initiatives by bringing together representatives from the campus, local school districts and regional industries. The initiatives are geared to elementary and secondary students.

Kids in College, celebrating its 25th year in June, is a summer program that combines hands-on activities and STEM camps for students in grades one to 12. The STEM-related classes include courses like " Daring Designs" where students draw scale plans for a bedroom or game room using a scientific perspective and the "Rocketry" class, which is an opportunity for students to build their own model rockets and launch them. Kids in College is sponsored by the Grable Foundation.

The two-year GECKO program allows freshman and sophomore education and science majors at the campus to share lessons with local students, from kindergarten to the eighth grade, in Allegheny, Armstrong and Westmoreland county school districts. GECKO is supported by a grant from the Buhl Foundation.

STEM Academy targets high school students. The program provides dual-enrollment courses that are focused on STEM majors. Students are given options for courses that can be taken at the New Kensington campus.

“The academy provides students with the advantages of earning college credits while in high school and exploring a career path that is STEM-related," said Novak, who teaches English as a second language in the Burrell School District. “It also provides an opportunity for high school teachers to work with campus faculty to develop the talents of college-bound and workforce-bound students whose career interests will require advanced knowledge of STEM areas.”  The campus’ four STEM projects complement Novak’s charge to coalesce interdisciplinary teams of grade school teachers and administrators, higher education students and faculty, and industry representatives to determine the best approach to STEM literacy in the region.

“STEM-related growth is expected to expand immensely in the near future for the Alle-Kiski Valley,” said Novak, who lives in Lower Burrell with her husband and four children. “Our programs are directed at introducing and supporting the necessary pathways for students in our area districts for success in STEM jobs.”

Bill Woodard, uxw1@psu.edu
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