Laurel High STEM

Laurel High School seniors Savanna Khoury, left, and Alyssa Mills work on DNA extraction during the Family STEM Night at Laurel High. (Photo by Matt Hazlett / December 11, 2013)

When Kenneth Barrie and Rima Garg teach their science classes at Laurel High School, their students inevitably ask "why do we need to know this?"

The co-chairs of the science department can enumerate all the careers in science, technology, engineering and math fields but, Barrie said, "they don't believe it."

That's where the high school's first annual STEM Family Night comes in.

"This adds a creditability to what we've been saying," Garg said. "If it's coming from someone who's already doing these things in their careers, the students know the authenticity of what they're learning."

Students begin to see robotics and DNA extraction as more than class assignments, Barrie said, and as things they could be doing in one of thousands of STEM jobs in the metro area.

Barrie and Garg have been planning the STEM night since November, when the Maryland Business Roundtable named Laurel High one of three STEM Innovative Schools in Prince George's County.

Laurel High's STEM Family Night on Dec. 11 brought more than 200 students and family members to the school's auditorium, where they heard from Christina Achampong from the U.S. Department of Defense and almost a dozen other professionals in various STEM fields. Barrie and Garg said they hoped the event opened students' eyes to the possibilities in STEM fields, and informed the larger student population to what's being done in the science department.

"We hope this will open the door to STEM for them," Garg said. "Education is becoming more global and we want to expose these kids to as much as we can, because STEM is all around them. We want them to come out of their shells and see what's available in these fields. Science is a part of life. Technology is a part of life, and sometimes students don't get that."

The concepts taught in STEM classes and used in STEM fields are "the building blocks of life," keynote speaker Achampong said.

"They're the key to advancing the future, to learning about the human experience and protecting our homeland," she said. "It's only when you understand the core foundation of things that you can tear them apart and rearrange them into something bigger and stronger than before."

Yes, science classes can be hard, Achampong said, but that shouldn't be a barrier to students who may be interested in STEM classes.

"Don't stop just because it's hard," she said. "Life is hard and you have to press through sometimes. There are so many opportunities, so many jobs in this area for STEM fields."

Showcasing science

At the STEM family night, guest speakers led classroom break-out sessions on different careers and concepts. There was a Physics IQ Test, a Who Dunn It? forensics workshop and a robotics presentation and demonstration from the Federal Aviation Administration. In the hallway outside the auditorium, students manned tables showcasing what they were learning in their STEM classes.

At one table, seniors Savanna Khoury and Alyssa Mills extract DNA from strawberries. The process is a delicate one — adding soapy water to mashed up strawberries, filtering the substance and adding alcohol to eventually separate out whispery white strands of DNA in the solution.

A few tables down, juniors Kayla Richards and Treshawn Parker directed an underwater robot, complete with camera, that they built for their International Baccalaureate biology class.

"We built it to observe animals under water in the Chesapeake Bay," Parker said. "But there was one flaw — it was too loud. It scared the animals away. We're trying to modify it now."

In biology class, students also learn robotics [they have to build their own circuit boards to run the machine] and Theory of Knowledge.

"It's not just biology," Richards said. "Compared to all other subjects, I like science the most. You can explore so much. In your everyday life, you always run into something that has to do with science. .... Learning stuff like this, you can help improve the world."