Local middle schoolers get a head start in STEM at WCSU

Dr. Theodora Pinou, associate professor of Biological and Environmental Sciences and faculty curator of the H. G. Dowling Herpetological Collection at Western Connecticut State University, runs Finding Our Way: An Experiential Watershed Learning Program for Middle School Children and Their Families, an environmental science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) skills education program.

With a grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Pinou brings students from regional middle schools to WCSU to provide a wide-ranging educational experience focusing on water resources and ecosystem biodiversity as part of the NOAA Office of Education’s Bay Watershed Education and Training (B-WET) Program.

WCSU, Danbury Family Learning Center and Danbury Public Schools collaborate on the program, which offers 30 seventh-grade middle school students and their families a yearlong integrated environmental stewardship experience focused on New England watersheds.

As proof of Pinou’s success, “Finding Our Way” alumna Khushi Parikh, a student at Danbury’s Westside Middle School Academy, won first honors in biotechnology at the 2017 Connecticut Science & Engineering Fair for her project, “Pharmaceuticals In Our Water: How Can These Hazardous Chemicals Be Filtered?” Parikh also won a third place trophy for overall Life Sciences.

“Finding Our Way” partners with WCSU’s Weather Center and The Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation to study the life cycle and behavior of organisms that rely on the watershed for resources. It also works with the NOAA Fisheries Lab in Milford and FirstLight Power Resources to learn about sustainable clean energy such as biofuel and hydroelectric power, and to examine the cost and benefit of such resources in terms of impact on local fish populations and associated habitats.

The yearlong family program includes the 10-day summer enrichment experience, three family science summer events, and three family “Science Saturdays”during the academic year. The program is housed at WCSU and uses facilities at the university’s two campuses in Danbury, including the computer, science and library facilities and Weather Center on the university’s Midtown campus, and the Nature Preserve and Olympic-size indoor swimming pool on the 

Westside campus. Family science meetings during the academic year provide support for parents to complete on-line content training and certification, habitat use analysis experiments, participation in a Tri-State Weather conference, and overnight travel to Chincoteague Island Reservation and Wallops Island, NOAA’s NESDIS satellite facility.

The two-week summer enrichment program hosts a variety of science and math experiments and field trips, providing students with a head start in STEM fields, as well as building a foundation of environmental stewardship and literacy. The program integrates writing, skills building, recreation, reading, data analysis and teamwork. By the end of the summer, teams of families led by their students develop bilingual public service announcements in the language of their choice.

Selected middle school science teachers receive 28 hours of professional development during the fall and spring to develop, implement and refine their fresh water-related classroom. Additionally, science teachers are trained to integrate NOAA Ocean Literacy program with Next Generation Science Standards in their classrooms.

Reaching out to disadvantaged, minority and female students, the participating schools include Broadview Middle School, Rogers Park Middle School and Westside Middle School Academy. Ten additional students are selected by lottery from Bethel, Redding, New Milford and New Fairfield.

Families interested in learning more are invited to attend an open meeting at 6 p.m. on Monday, June 5, in the Science Building on the university’s Midtown campus, 181 White Street, Danbury. The 2017 Family Stewardship Awards will also be announced at that time, and new families are encouraged to engage with the previous cohort and ask questions.

For more information, call the Office of University Relations at (203) 837-8486.