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Westlake STEAM Symposium Inspires Next Generation of Innovators

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By Em Stangarone

The halls of Westlake High School were abuzz with curiosity last Tuesday and Wednesday as students attended the Mount Pleasant School District’s STEAM Symposium.

The fifth annual event engages students in the areas of science, technology, engineering, art and math. After two years of virtual programming, students were overjoyed to return for two days of in-person, hands-on scientific exploration.

“Our STEAM Symposium is an opportunity for students to explore their passion and learn about fields they may not be familiar with,” said Mary Knopp, the school’s library media specialist and symposium co-chair. “Our goal is to inspire and empower students about opportunities in STEAM (fields) that will fuel curiosity, inspiration and wonder.” 

About 40 Westlake students in grades 7-10, participated in this year’s symposium, as well as 10 upperclassmen serving as volunteers who helped ensure the program ran smoothly. 

Students chose from over 20 workshops led by educators and experts in their fields, many of whom volunteered their time to teach the next generation of innovators. Workshop topics included archaeology, Arduino electronics, Artificial Intelligence, cryptology, design thinking, drones, electronic music, food sensory science, forensics, quantum computing and veterinary science.

Following the workshops, students participated in an activity block of their choice, such as building a Banana Piano, conducting an archaeology dig or racing robots. 

“Based on student feedback, this symposium exceeded our expectations,” said Janet Matthews, a Westlake learning specialist and professional developer who co-chairs the event alongside Knopp. “Students were so involved in their topics that they didn’t want to leave their workshops. Many students discovered a career path they never knew existed.” 

Some of the most popular workshops included a drone demonstration, building an underwater robot, a visit from Swoop (the world’s first vehicular MRI system) and a lesson on the chemistry behind ice cream, which ended with a tasty homemade dessert for all.

More than 40 Westlake Middle School and Westlake High School students participated in the increasingly popular STEAM Symposium last week.
Mount Pleasant School District photos

“‘A Look Inside the Brain’ (the MRI truck) was my favorite workshop,” said ninth-grader Isabelle Chacko. “It gave a really good insight as to what an MR scan is and insight into the brain, and I would like to pursue a career in neurology someday.”

For seventh-grader Duncan Force, the highlight was “Battle Stations,” a mathematics workshop led by Westlake High School Vice Principal Kenneth Amann. Students played a scaled-up version of the game Battleship.

“We got to mess with velocity and angles,” Force said. “And most importantly, we got to shoot metal balls at cardboard ships we made!” 

The symposium is the brainchild of Matthews, who was inspired to create STEAM programming for students after attending a fellowship in the Middle East. 

“I became keenly aware of the challenges facing educators to prepare students with the knowledge to be innovators for the future of their countries,” Matthews said. “Thinking about the gap between traditional education, the needs of a global workforce, and the power of STEAM to solve human issues, I proposed to a supportive administration the concept of a symposium that would bring together experts in the field who would inspire possibilities for the next generation of Mount Pleasant Central School District students.” 

After collaborating with Knopp, administrators, and other educators, the first STEAM Symposium was launched in 2018.

“The student feedback was so positive that we knew we had not only to inspire possibilities but also continue to grow possibilities,” Matthews said. 

Since then, Knopp and Matthews have done just that. They’ve expanded and adapted the symposium, taking into consideration developments in STEAM fields and incorporating the feedback collected in student interest surveys. 

One such adaptation was this year’s keynote presenter, Dr. Stephanie LaMassa, a scientist who studies the feeding habits of black holes. The symposium now collaborates with universities and industry leaders such as Fujifilm Healthcare Americas Corporation and Hyperfine, Inc., the creators of the Swoop portable MRI truck. 

“With so many evolving new technologies, there is an abundance of jobs in STEAM-related fields,” said Knopp, who hopes to continue reprising the symposium and has plans for a possible STEAM field day. “Students not only need to be aware of these career opportunities, they also need to have hands-on experiences and the opportunity to engage with professionals in the field.”

And while the “A” in STEAM may seem out of place alongside math and science, its role is crucial, as human skills cannot be easily replaced by A.I. and machinery. Adding art to STEM means encouraging collaboration, adaptation and imagination within the hard-science fields. 

“Students live in a visual world, and the tools of creativity, problem-solving and visual literacy are essential skills for innovation and product design,” Knopp explained. “The inclusion of A for Art strengthens how students view and creatively solve problems.”

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