By Steve Sears
There are many words that can be used to describe Students 2 Science, Inc., which supports and more so promotes STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) education, especially in underprivileged areas.
Dr. Paul Winslow, President and Co-Founder of the 501(c)(3) foundation, says “Students 2 Science (S2S) is a convener. We are here to serve as a bridge between the public and private sector. Our corporate partners unanimously are seeking a ready workforce connected to the skills and high demand careers throughout the state of New Jersey and across the country. We understand the skills needed and teach students through modern technologies, role models and experiences that bring STEM to life. Also, our corporate partners are committed to Newark students and the community through nurturing their passion for science from the first experiment to a thriving career in one of New Jersey’s many STEM companies.”
“So today is what we call our Pharma Day,” says Gary Sarkis, who is in charge of the S2S Newark Technology Learning Center, which was unveiled in May 2018. Today, he is in the Students 2 Science first home, a humble but bountiful, educational offering located at 66 Deforest Avenue in East Hanover. “Basically, what we do today is we bring the students in and they’re going to solve a problem.” The visiting students are from Montclair High School, and there are seven volunteer mentors from a nearby drug company, Celgene in Summit, who along with their mentees are creating a mythical drug like an aspirin and checking its effectiveness.
There’s so much to this – all of it good. It’s all about learning and the future, and that future is nearer than we think.
The experiment thus day is called Dissolution Testing, and the object is to test whether certain medications dissolve quickly enough in the stomach to get into the blood stream. A first-time mentor, Albert Agyare, and second timer, Crystal Lee, made the trek from Celgene. “I’m looking at the future,” says Agyare, when asked what he sees when he is educating a student during an experiment. “I don’t think I was at their level at their age.” He then looks over at the students, who are eating lunch between labs and talking excitedly about their findings. “It gives them an opportunity.”
“I think it’s good for exposure,” says Lee, stating an obvious benefit. “I mean, a lot of times when I was in high school, we did these experiments, and you kind of did them to get the results that your teacher wanted, but you didn’t see how it applied to the real world.” She also weighs in on STEM education. “I think it helps you with problem solving in general. It teaches you how to think through a problem logically in an analytical fashion, so it doesn’t have to be STEM-related, but it can be applied to anything.”
Students 2 Science is now 10 years old, and has served over 66,000 students and 2,000 teachers with both the “in the lab” ISAAC sessions (Improving Student Affinity and Aptitude for Careers in STEM, for middle and high school), and in the classroom through V-Labs (Virtual Laboratory, for elementary through high school) since the nonprofit’s inception. The ISAAC program is often held onsite three times per week, while the V-Labs are held at agreeable times between the schools and the Students 2 Science Virtual Lab.
V-Labs are not limited to just school classrooms, so Eric J. Neuberger, Ph.D., Senior Instructor and Educational Specialist and V-Lab presenter, is busy preparing an experiment in his lab, this one in particular for Oasis, a Boys & Girls Club in Paterson. In a few hours he’d again be live on-air. Two cameras are facing his background and worktables. He has a Doctorate in Biomedical Sciences from Rutgers University. “This is my domain,” he says, pointing around. “What we do is build different experiments – biology, chemistry, physics – and we send them out to these schools, and we create a unique link. The school will click on the link and will join, and it could be multiples schools, from anywhere. We can do one in New Jersey, one in North Carolina, both are on the screen, completely interactive, they can hear each other, and we send them instructor guides primarily for the teachers that get them to run the class for the first time with me live, and also for them to run it with their class on their own when were off.”
That’s key: the learning continues for both student and teacher after the V-Lab broadcast.
Neuberger says 99% of the time, questions avalanche with curiosity about the experiment. “They (the students) just love it.” When asked if it’s the best job he’ s ever had, he responds, “Oh, yeah. Just for how rewarding it is. And there’s another reason, from when I was coming up and getting my degrees. When you’re going to college most of it is not hands on activities. You’re taking notes and people are lecturing to you. When I was a graduate student, when I was expected to do independent level research in a lab, most of what they teach you is when you’re sitting in a chair and they describe to you the procedure on a board and you don’t really get to do it that day. But eight months later they’ll expect you to remember it and that’s just not the way it works. You need to get people in the lab, getting their hands dirty. Hands on is important.”
Students 2 Science to the rescue.
“Location, location, location” is key in real estate, and the initial Students 2 Science building is arguably located within the busiest business pharmaceutical and science area in the state. That means support locally. “Bayer was just here,” says Catherine “Kit” Nugent, Vice President of External Engagement. “Bayer is one of our biggest supporters. If you look at them as a sponsor, not only do they give us money, but we’ve been talking with their diversity and inclusion group on how to get more volunteers here. They’re very important. The (school) district itself, they send their middle school students here, because they believe that sending their students early makes a huge difference and so much so that their PTA has actually sponsored students to come here. The community is very much part of the work here.”
The East Hanover Technology Center that Students 2 Science operates out of East Hanover was initially owned by Teva Pharmaceuticals. “We inherited the building as is,” says Sarkis, who has been with Students 2 Science for 18 months. “Basically, the lab was set up as the lab, so there was no money to be spent in restructuring the building. So, we started developing the lab within the facilities we have.”
The founders of Students 2 Science – Dr. Winslow, Richard Meyer, Donald Truss, and Larry Fox – had a common issue: they were not able to find individuals that came with the skills they needed, and they had to set up very expensive training programs. Over breakfast discussion, the nonprofit was born. The early days included taking over the site and recruiting schools and volunteers, many of whom had careers at Merck, Schering Plough, and other such companies who helped build the initial experiments and recruited more volunteers.
As important as the East Hanover facility is in what it has, does ,and has meant thus far to those it has benefitted, Sarkis lauds the downtown Newark location, which was unveiled in May 2018. “It’s so exciting to have a new facility,” he says. “State of the art instrumentation, everything is squeaky brand new and clean, we’re right in the heart of Newark, and the kids are so excited when they come in. We are not a museum: we are a bunch of laboratories. We have gas lines coming in and powering the instruments, we have like $2,000,000 of instrumentation that was donated to us that makes that facility run.” Countertops, cabinets, instrumentation was all donated, and the donators see (and down the road, may reap) the benefits of it, in addition to the students – the founders sown seed bearing fruit. “Absolutely,” says Sarkis, “because the students coming out will hopefully be their employees in the future. It’s easier to recruit locally than from all over the country.” The same activities go on in East Hanover and Newark, although in Newark the building is divided in to six separate laboratories and two virtual laboratories.
Nugent says, “One of the things that Students 2 Science does in addition to having innovative programs is to bring the advocacy for authentic STEM education because we’ve (overall education systems) have gone without it. (Science) Is very valuable, and I think the public and private sector need to be partners, 50%-50%, because without that partnership we will not have students who can enter the workforce. We’ve not been focused in that way before. It doesn’t mean that the liberal arts aren’t fantastic, they are, they’re the basis for how we learn, but also now you don’t know basic math, and you don’t have an introduction to science, you cannot understand this world or the consequences that we suffer at this time. Science is the solution.”
Per Nugent, STEM is one of the lower funded educational realms in urban areas. That’s where Students 2 Science comes in, serving as advocates for science exploration.
Although encouraged to build another facility – and Dr. Winslow by 2029 would like to see another 3 to 5 sites built – Students 2 Science encourages involvement in the V-Labs program, which gets students exposed to science as early as elementary school. Yes, the virtual classroom can serve New Jersey, but has educated classrooms beyond Garden State borders and can even go abroad. “The centers offer an opportunity to be a community center if you will, a shared resource among students which is phenomenal, but there’s a cost associated with it,” says Nugent. “The instrumentation is worth millions of dollars, and relationships to the maintenance and the technical assistance and training for our staff, so there’s infrastructure, staff, and the bricks and mortar component. But the Virtual Laboratory, in fact if we could, we’re starting to put together a state plan. If we could, we would have a V-Lab studio in every county in the state, and it would provide us with the opportunity to bring the virtual laboratory there. So, the V-Lab is a line to the next generation science standards, which is a compliance issue for the state, and we start in the fifth grade, because we believe you have to start early.”
Sarkis is working on refining the pilot, which is integrated with his team with the Newark Public School system. “It’s not just all of the infrastructure and buildings. It’s about having the right people, scientists who are working with the students, and we need to have the corporate sponsors who could expand, and we want to maintain the integrity of the program.”
For more information about Students 2 Science and what it can offer your school and to the community, as well as about donating to the nonprofit, visit www.students2science.org.
“It’s about,” says Nugent definitively, “really passionate individuals who really can’t get enough of science and want to find a meaningful way to bring science to students.”