Summer program gives underrepresented teens summer college experience

October 3, 2023
By: Nancy Sheehan

Editors note: This story first appeared in the 2023 Donor Impact Statement, Supporting the Whole Student,published in September. The annual publication highlights the impact of philanthropic support at the university.

A group of local high school students made a splash at Worcester State this summer in a special STEM program that focused on water.

They were participants in the Cornerstone STEM Connections program, funded by Cornerstone Bank, which is designed to boost interest among underrepresented high school students in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) subjects and introduce them to laboratory and data processing techniques that are key for student success in college.

The program brought students from local high schools to campus over nine days this summer to practice chemistry, ecology, biology, and computer science skills by studying water samples they collected from Lake Ellie, Worcester State’s small but storied water feature, and nearby Patch Reservoir.

“The theme was ‘water,’ and they looked at the biological and chemical composition of water through different disciplines and then tied all the information together,” said Kathleen Murphy, associate professor of chemistry, who was the program coordinator. Each day they did a different lab activity looking at the biological content of water, doing things like preparing plates and using microscopes. They also learned how to determine the hardness of water and used spectroscopy to analyze the phosphorus content of water samples. “These are all activities that use laboratory skills they would likely see in a freshman-level course in college,” Dr. Murphy said.

Cornerstone, a Worcester-based bank, supported the program as part of its commitment to the local community, said Todd Tallman, Cornerstone CEO. “This program gives us an opportunity to invest in the community, to invest in Worcester State, and also to invest in the younger generation,” he said. “That’s something that we take seriously and something that has always been incredibly important to us.”

At the close of the program, the students expressed their gratitude to Cornerstone on a thank-you card by completing the sentence: Your generous support has allowed us to… “learn about filtration and eutrophication,” one student wrote, “use new lab tools and analyze data,” said another, and “have so much fun!” said a third, echoing the sentiments of several others.

The program is designed to work closely with the Worcester Public Schools system, with STEM teachers at the high schools recommending students who may be interested in pursuing a career in STEM or who they feel should be encouraged to do so. The feedback teachers have received from program participants has been overwhelmingly positive.

“Students really enjoyed participating in the Cornerstone STEM Connections program,” Stacey Hill, science department head at Doherty Memorial High School, said. “They get experience in a college science lab, and it provides exposure to the university and to Professor Murphy and other staff members.”  

Through the program, students also get a chance to visit several locations around Worcester, like the Worcester Center for Crafts, where they study non-polluting ways to make art, and the city water filtration plant. “All of these opportunities and experiences are eye-opening for students,” Hill said. “And they also have a chance to meet and interact with students from other schools.” 

Worcester Public Schools’ enrollment is about 23,700. Of this number 74% are low income, compared to the 48% state average. The district’s minority enrollment is nearing 70%. Lower than average scores on standardized tests in science and technology areas show a clear need for programs like Cornerstone STEM Connections that provide experiential learning opportunities for a diverse group of students, according to Dr. Murphy. The program is designed to encourage them to consider STEM careers and to help students, especially first-generation students, begin to feel comfortable on a college campus. 

Perhaps most importantly, program organizers ensure that the students have a positive experience. “We try to guarantee that they have fun while they’re here,” Dr. Murphy said. “We go to the dining hall for lunch, which they really like, and I come around with candy at 2 o’clock in the afternoon to give them a boost. We have two Worcester State student helpers who talk with them and get to know them, so we really try to get them to begin to see themselves on a college campus.” 

From Cornerstone’s perspective, Tallman said giving students access to a STEM learning program is not only a great opportunity for the participants but something that benefits the community as well. “Maybe it will lead to a new path for them, and maybe it isn’t science. Maybe it’s more math, which from a banking perspective is more in keeping with what we do,” he said. “But it’s important to give students who might not otherwise have that access the chance to see a lot of different things and find out what works for them. And, ultimately, if we can be a part of that, that’s fantastic.”

Top image: Students from Worcester Public Schools visited the greenhouse on the fifth floor of Worcester State’s Ghosh Science and Technology Building as part of a tour of campus during the Cornerstone STEM Connections program, supported by Cornerstone Bank. Photos by Nancy Sheehan.

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