Science teacher Karen Alexander demonstrates how hot in an enclosed space, like a balloon, causes it to rise during an after-school STEM class at South Canton Scholar Academy (Ricardo Thomas / The Detroit News)
Canton— Rishi Pammi carefully glues together large, colorful tissue papers to create a hot air balloon.
It may sound like an art project, but the sixth-grader is actually learning about science, technology, engineering and math as part of an after-school club at South Canton Scholars, a charter school.
After gluing the tissue panels together, students secure the pieces at the balloon’s mouth and fit it over a small, electrically-powered hot-air cylinder. After the balloon fills up for a few minutes, students release it and watch it fly.
“My parents began teaching me math when I was really little, and I like it now,” said Rishi, who’s 11. “And science and technology also interest me. My mom said when my dad was a kid he was always asking why about things, and that’s how I am, too.”
The engineering club of 20 students, which meets at the charter academy once a week, illustrates a growing number of extracurricular programs in Metro Detroit aimed at boosting students’ skills and interest in science, technology, math and engineering — STEM. Studies have shown U.S. students lag their peers in many other industrialized countries in math and science.
Detroit Country Day School in Bloomfield Hills addresses the gap with its annual Super Science Saturday, which was this weekend. Student volunteers from the upper school teach interactive science lessons to junior and lower school students.
“Next Generation Science Standards and STEM are the hot topics right now for all teachers, and there are many resources and motivational programs available for teachers,” said Marlenn Maicki, who began Super Science Saturday 20 years ago to connect students with a love of science.
Despite educators’ best efforts, data provided by the Engineering Society of Detroit show the U.S. struggles to compete globally in STEM education, against countries such as China, Korea, Singapore, Canada, New Zealand and Japan. In the next 10 years, 80 percent of jobs will be in STEM, while many others will have those components, according to ESD.
The key is to engage students early.
“South Canton thought that an engineering club would not only give students who love science and math an opportunity for an after-school program, but also help spread the word about how cool math and science can be,” said club adviser and dean Fletcher Morgan.
As part of its program, South Canton Scholars contacted Engineering for Kids, a franchise that teaches STEM education for younger students. Karen Alexander is the owner/director of Engineering for Kids in western Wayne and Washtenaw counties.
“They want to know how things work, and when channeled in the correct way, students are excited about science, technology, engineering and math,” said Alexander, who led the students in the hot air balloon experiment. “As the students create hands-on activities, the students are engaged, and we hope to create a life-long interest in STEM areas.”
Experts say STEM skills learned early can translate into careers.
“A STEM education is the foundation for independent and critical thinkers and doers,” said Christopher J. Webb, director and co-founder of the ESD Institute. “Importantly, those skills are needed right here in Michigan.”
The Detroit engineering society conducts two annual STEM-related competitions. The Michigan Regional Future City Competition is geared toward middle school students across the state who are challenged to envision a city 150-plus years into the future in which they would like to live.
Another ESD competition is Engineering SMArT Detroit. Students learn about energy as it relates to their own school, community and future.
In Detroit Public Schools, spokeswoman Kaniqua Daniel-Welch said many of the district’s buildings have an after-school science-related club.
“Nearly all DPS schools have embraced the importance of science, technology, engineering and mathematics offerings in some capacity at various grade levels throughout the district,” she said. “However, there are several schools that have a primary STEM curriculum focus, while dozens of schools have STEM related extra-curricular activities and clubs to complement classroom instruction.”
Back at Detroit County Day School, both of Kellie Kosch’s two children have attended Super Science Saturday for many years.
“My children love attending because they are immersed in science in a way that does not feel so academic,” said Kosch, who lives in Troy. “They love getting their hands dirty and creating gadgets, potions and gizmos. What may look like a test tube of glitter to some is actually a fairly sophisticated concept about emulsions and colloids, packaged in pure fun. I would have loved to have this opportunity as a child.”