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Last FIRSTE program for young women set for May 7-8

FIRSTE program
High school girls learn science, technology, engineering and math at Penn State New Kensington's two-day FIRSTE program.
5/6/2013 —




The 21st Females Interested in Reaching for Science, Technology and Engineering (FIRSTE) program is set for Tuesday and Wednesday, May 7 and 8, at Penn State New Kensington.

FIRSTE is a two-day summer program that targets potential college-bound ninth-through-11th-grade girls who are considering a career in science, technology or engineering. The object of the program is to foster involvement of girls in these traditionally male fields by reaching them during the career-formative years of high school. The program aims to allay the concerns of young women and to give them career options.

"Making a decision about career choices or areas of academic study in science and engineering can be overwhelming to high school students," said Tracie Brockhoff, co-director of the program and equipment specialist in the campus' biology and chemistry departments. "The program exposes the girls to many potential career fields in science and engineering so that they can eliminate choices and focus on what appeals to them."

Twelve females from high schools in Allegheny, Butler, Indiana, Armstrong and Westmoreland counties are selected each year for the program on the basis of their application and their intellectual curiosity.

"The program brings together females who develop and sustain a sense of support for one another," said Joan Kowalski, senior instructor in engineering at the New Kensington campus. "They share concerns, fears and uncertainties surrounding these nontraditional careers."

The curriculum focuses on computer-based design, practical laboratory applications and technical report writing as a means of introduction to the engineering and science fields. Students are provided with meals and are housed at the Nittany Highland Apartments, which are adjacent to the campus.

"Science and engineering are exciting and interesting to women on a multitude of levels," Brockhoff said. "Through FIRSTE, students experience a variety of science and engineering concepts to determine what fields of study interest them and what fields do not."

The 21st edition of FIRSTE will be the last. With the development of numerous STEM (Science, Math, Engineering and Technology) initiatives during the past several years at the campus, the objectives of the FIRSTE program duplicate those of the newer STEM programs, such as GECKO, STEM Academy and COMETS.

“After twenty-one years, I think FIRSTE has run its course and accomplished its objectives,” Kowalski said. “Moreover, because of STEM initiatives, there are many other activities now in existence to continue the mission.”

Since its inception in 1993, FIRSTE has provided 170 participants with a variety of skills to enhance their opportunity for success in the engineering and science fields. The program has been supported by grants from Society for Analytical Chemists of Pittsburgh (SACP), Bozzone Foundation, PPG Industries, Medrad, American Nuclear Society - Pittsburgh Section, and Penn State Division of Undergraduate Studies, College of Engineering.

An evening banquet on the second day of the program has been a tradition since the beginning. The banquet brings together participants, families, and donors.

The final keynote speaker will be Curt Radcliffe, a retired chemist for PPG Industries. Radcliffe has been a member of SACP, a professional society, for more than 30 years. Through its foundation, the Pittsburgh Conference, SACP and its sister society, Spectroscopy Society of Pittsburgh, promote science education in the form of science outreach programs, scholarships and grants to students, teachers and schools in the tri-state area and across the country.

On the recommendation of the Scholarships and Grants subcommittee, SACP provided the initial grant to the FIRSTE Program in 1996. Three years later, Radcliffe assumed the chairmanship subcommittee, a position he still holds, and the grants were renewed yearly.

“SACP believes the FIRSTE program is a worthwhile program to help young women decide if they want to pursue a career in science, technology and engineering,” said Radcliffe. “There are many careers possible in science, technology and engineering, and they are all needed to keep our society going. “

As dusk sets on FIRSTE, Kowalski and Brockoff will still be involved in the STEM fields, but will switch gears from recruiting secondary school students to retaining college students.

For a third consecutive summer, Penn State New Kensington is offering a preparatory program for incoming freshmen that is tailored to engineering students.

Summer Preparation for Academics in the College of Engineering, or SPACE as it is known on campus, is a two-week academic session during the summer. The sessions are designed to strengthen the skills, knowledge, and experience of those seeking to major in engineering. The program includes classes in pre-calculus, chemistry, physics, and English, as well as workshops on study skills and course scheduling strategies. Peer mentoring and networking with current students helps ease the transition from high school to college.

"The SPACE program is an excellent opportunity for freshmen to gain familiarity with basic subject matter in engineering," said Kowalski, the program director. "When the fall semester begins, they should feel more comfortable with some of the material in their courses."

Kowalski and Brockoff will be working on expanding the program next summer from two weeks to three weeks.

STEM Programs at the Campus
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 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.

Courses On Math, Engineering, Technology, and Science, also known as COMETS, began in March to provide online career mentoring for middle school females. The program targets seventh- and eighth-grade girls who have an interest in the STEM fields.

Bill Woodard, uxw1@psu.edu
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