Worcester State University’s Chemistry  Department has been enriching the summers of local high school students by running an Environmental STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) Connections program.
The academic workshop has operated four out of the last five summers, and for the past two years, an investment by the Digital Federal Credit Union  (DCU) has aided in the success of the program.
“Their funding assisted with many aspects of the workshop such as lab materials, transportation of students to and from the workshop and on field trips, food for participants, and T-shirts,” says Dr. Kathleen Murphy of the WSU Chemistry Department.
Murphy, who runs the program, sends out invitations to the science departments of Worcester city high schools, asking them to extend the invitations to motivated students interested in pursuing a STEM path. Each year, 12 to 15 rising juniors and seniors have participated in the eight-day workshop.
“The goals of the workshop are to educate students about environmental issues, provide laboratory time for them to learn and practice important skills, excite them about science and allow them to envision themselves pursuing a college degree in STEM,” says Murphy.
Furthermore, each year a WSU student assists with the program. They prepare chemicals and other materials before students arrive and assist the students with laboratory skills. “The high school students enjoy having a WSU peer to relate to and ask questions about college life,” says Murphy. Since the program’s establishment, some of the high school students have gone on to become students at Worcester State.
For the first three years, the workshops focused on consumer choices and environmental impact. Murphy says that students learned and practiced laboratory skills to collect and evaluate data and make a conclusion of their own. After assessing the lab data, possible alternatives to consumer choices were presented.
“We looked at pesticides in our food, but then as an alternative we discussed purchasing from local farmers markets and growing some food on their own,” Murphy says. “We made a trip to the WSU Teaching Garden  at Chandler Street School to harvest summer produce.”
The students also discussed heavy metals used in jewelry, how jewelry is mined, and what should be considered when purchasing or recycling jewelry. “Students spend one day at the Worcester Center for Crafts , creating jewelry from recycled material,” Murphy says. “This is an amazing day and they love taking home their artwork.”
The students also explored other consumer topics that affect their lives. They discovered what detergents are composed of and how the substances are harmful to the environment. They determined which light bulbs are most efficient and most environmentally safe. They also learned of the harmful fumes present in nail salons.
This past summer, the workshop curriculum was changed to incorporate other disciplines. Professors from the Chemistry, Biology, and Earth, Environment, and Physics departments were involved. This time, the focus was on the water of Central Massachusetts.
“To start the workshop and allow students to fully understand where our water comes from and goes, students took a field trip to filtration plant in Holden and then the Wastewater Treatment Facility in Millbury,” Murphy says. “Students used chemistry to analyze several water samples in the Blackstone River, Lake Ellie, Housatonic River, Tatnuck Brook, and tap water for pH, phosphates, chloride, turbidity, and hardness.”
On campus, the students studied the biota of Lake Ellie using microscopes and growth plates. In nearby Tatnuck Brook, students donned waders to determine the flow channel and flow rate.
Murphy hopes to continue the program next year. A new set of students will be introduced to STEM skills and subjects, allowing them to learn about their world, the effects of their choices, and the solutions to environmental problems.