To the average high school student, having fun on summer vacation means getting away from teachers and classrooms, and taking a break from learning. But 12 Worcester public school teenagers recently started their summer fun in a Worcester State University chemistry lab, testing the iron content in their breakfast cereal, analyzing the active ingredients in sunscreen, and making ice cream using liquid nitrogen, among other cool activities.
“My goals are to have fun and show them how chemistry relates to the real world,” said Assistant Professor of Chemistry KC Murphy, Ph.D., who organized the six-day STEM Connections camp. “We also want to encourage a love of science and demystify the college experience.”
The rising juniors and seniors were nominated by their science teachers to participate in the camp, which took place from June 26 to July 3. Most days they were in the lab using the same type of equipment that they would be using in college as STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) students.
“Some of the things we have done before in our high school labs, but not as in-depth,” said Josephine Essuman, a rising junior in the biotechnology program at Worcester Technical High School. “Here, we’re making connections with real life.”
In addition to investigating cereal and sunscreen, they analyzed tap, ocean, and deionized water to understand their properties. They also focused on the energy efficiency of different kinds of light bulbs and how they generate illumination. The group took a break from the lab on one of the days and went on a field trip to the Worcester Center for Crafts to create artwork out of recycled material. Every day, they ate lunch in the Sheehan POD, getting another flavor for college life.
Murphy said she’s run this type of camp before, although past iterations focused on green chemistry and included high school science teachers as well. Based on feedback from alumni of those camps (two of whom are now current students at Worcester State), she focused this year’s camp on having fun and getting high school students excited about studying science at the college level.
“It’s all about giving them confidence to imagine themselves in this situation,” she said.
In a survey given at the end of the camp, students had one bit of advice for next year: They had so much fun, they thought the camp should be longer.
The STEM Connections camp was funded through grants from the Worcester State Foundation  and the Barbara (Hickey) O’Brien ’57 Department of Education .