STEM Bus: When a bus does more than take students to school

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For most students, the word “bus” brings to mind the yellow school bus that takes them away from the fun at home and delivers them to the learning environment of school. Imagine a bus, however, that not only attracts students but actually provides an exciting, educational environment that they don’t want to leave. The STEM bus, part of the BioNetwork in North Carolina, brings state-of-the-art equipment to students and provides hours of enriched engagement for students in high school and college. A 40-foot-long bus, emblazoned with images of molecules on a bright blue background, features a full laboratory equipped with research instruments, computers, and iPads and travels around the state to create interest in jobs relating to STEM fields, particularly those in life science, medicine, agriculture and engineering. James Sanders, the Mobile Lab Coordinator for the STEM bus, spoke with STEMwire about the operations of the bus and the importance of STEM in education today.
STEMwire: Could you tell us who you are, what your position is, and what the STEM bus is as a project? James Sanders: The STEM bus actually represents the 58 community colleges in North Carolina. A subset of the community colleges is BioNetwork, an organization that operates out of a select few community colleges, and basically BioNetwork is also for training workers to be more qualified to work in their particular environments. So here at the Capstone Center, which is where my office is at NC State, they do a lot of bioprocessing technician training which we have an aseptic suite and things of that nature. Here at the Capstone Center, there is a lot of bioprocessing technician training. Within BioNetwork, we are part of an outreach arm, in which we are working for the community colleges to increase enrollment in the community colleges in STEM fields, which basically, if you look at the mandate from the community colleges, is to help ready the workforce of tomorrow. There are lot of companies here that are changing what they’re doing in order to be more STEM-centric because that’s what society is telling us is necessary. STEMwire: Where did the idea for the STEM bus come from? JS: I can’t really say it’s happened purposefully. The bus was originally a biotech bus, which did training in a mobile fashion for the BioNetwork [job] fair, which was here at the Capstone Center, and then for whatever reason before I came on, it was switched to more of an outreach vehicle, which is what it serves now. We originally got a grant from Duke Energy and so for a while we were limited to Duke Energy service area and that funding has now run out so we are solely supported by the BioNetwork funds, so we are back to being statewide. So it’s kinda just evolved into being what it is. STEMwire: Where in the state does the bus go? What are the target areas? JS: Right now we go to the 58 community colleges, based on our schedule and availability, but it also travels to high schools. Purposefully right now we are targeting title-one high schools and rural high schools that don’t have direct access to STEM resources. Often times we’ll get calls from people that recognize the benefit of STEM, which is why we were in Durham and Mecklenburg and Charlotte Counties. We want to try to reach the areas that don’t have a lot of STEM resources. High schools that we just recently visited were Bertie High School, right outside of Williamston, and we just came back from visiting the Performance Learning Centers in North Carolina. But we go anywhere. We’re not limited anymore to any specific geographical area. STEMwire: What are the outreach activities when the bus goes to community colleges and high schools? Do you cater the curriculum to both groups? JS: Basically right now our presentation doesn’t change and currently we’re working on ways to differentiate those two visits. We have the same setup for both and it pretty much revolves around career cards, so what we’ve done is we’ve identified, with the help of CareerOneStop and the Manufacturing Institute’s website, jobs that are expected to grow in North Carolina and jobs that are in demand in North Carolina. So what we’re trying to do is get people to be more informed about the careers that are available here in North Carolina and are expected to grow in North Carolina. The bus focuses around those cards and providing hands-on inquiry based activity to kind of introduce visitors to life science, medical and health, agriculture, and engineering STEM fields and then with that the community colleges provide the educational opportunities for them to be prepared to go into those fields. STEMwire: Can you give me an example of one of the activities that students might do? JS: We have a hood and a particle counter on the bus, and we use that to demonstrate that there are particles in the air. Somebody has probably told any- and everybody that their germs, dust and bacteria are everywhere and we just kind of take that at face value. With our particle counter, we are able to actually get a reading and show people that there are particles everywhere. That number [of particles] on the bus just continues to grow until we place it into the hood, which actually filters the particles. We use that as a talking point to talk about cleanroom industries in North Carolina, how pharmaceuticals are made, how computer chips and electronics also utilizes this technology to produce chips that are made in a static-free, particle-free environment. STEMwire: How did the funding for all of this start? JS: Basically, the Duke Energy funding has expired, so as of June of last year, we were no longer under that funding, so now we are self-supported by BioNetwork and the community college system. That’s kinda where we are now. We’re actually looking for grants, but right now there doesn’t seem to be an issue as far as funding thankfully. STEMwire: And the community college funding, is that all state money? JS: I believe so. STEMwire: How, if any way, does this interact with teachers or anyone that would be trying to educate that next generation of workers? JS: We’re seeing a need for having some sort of curriculum in place for perhaps pre- and post-assessment. Right now, visitors come on the bus and they will spend anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes on the bus and then we ask them to take away these career cards, so one of the questions is: How can we better supply teachers with with resources to continue the conversation? Right now we’re trying to develop a curriculum in accordance with North Carolina Community College Pathways that teachers can then utilize for discussions after they’ve visited the bus and hopefully maybe even before. STEMwire: Besides the focus on the careers side of STEM, do you have any focus on getting people interested in teaching these subjects? JS: No, we don’t spend time with that, but what we’ve recognized is that, well, what do teachers do with this information? We’ve kind of put this in our presentation that students see STEM separately most of the time; they see a science class, a math class, a technology class, but they don’t understand how it’s related to their future because they take these course separately. So that’s one of the things that we address on the bus, that in the real world these things exist together, they’re comprehensive. Getting the students to first see that’s how society works is the step that needs to be even more done with the teachers that can further illustrate this in a way that students can see on a daily basis. That’s how we’ve come to the conclusion that we need to do some type of curriculum in which teachers can relate how whatever they’re teaching to relates to STEM. So often students don’t see that. STEMwire: Do you know of any other mobile learning labs, similar to the STEM bus, either in North Carolina or in other parts of the country? JS: Well, I know here in North Carolina, there’s Destiny and Discovery, which operate out of UNC, and then there’s another STEM bus that operates out of Rowan County. We just found out that it’s basically servicing the students in that particular school district. Then another resource is the Mobile Lab[oratory] Coalition, which is a set of mobile labs across the United States that meets, actually it will be in St. Cloud, Minnesota in May or June. But there are probably about 10 to 15 programs across the United States that have similar programs. We all do different things, but they all basically do STEM. STEMwire: Is that an organization that you joined? JS: Yeah, we meet to share ideas and challenges that are exclusive to mobile lab programs. STEMwire: Can you talk about some of the reactions that you’ve gotten from the outreach with the program? JS: I love the fact that when I do my job and when it’s evaluated by students, one of the first things that pays for me to continue doing my job is when they come on the bus and they’re like, “Wow,” and it’s not what they expected on the inside of the bus. Sometimes teachers can’t get some of their students off the bus. We have activities set up throughout the whole bus, so one of the things that I talked about was the particle counter, but there are different hands-on activities throughout the bus. One of the ways that I kind of measure if we’ve done a decent job is if they don’t want to get off, so that’s one of the highlights when teachers say [their students] are very comfortable out here and they don’t want to go back to class. That’s the badge of honor.