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Five Days of STEM: Learning from the Industry and from your Peers

Industry-informed curricula is the hallmark of our FirstHand STEM programming for Philadelphia youth, but what happens when you pair industry-informed with near peer guidance? We found out last week when we piloted our new Hi5 program, for ten middle school students.

Leading up to the launch of this new curriculum, three “peer mentors,” (11th and 12th graders who had previously participated in FirstHand programming) worked with five local STEM companies over the course of a week, to design five distinct, industry-informed activities for their younger peers. The peer mentors also attended the five sessions with our middle schoolers to offer support and encourage STEM learning by providing a teen perspective, while our FirstHand team and STEM mentors from Crazy Aaron’s Putty World, Invisible Sentinel, GSK, Biolabs, and Monell Chemical Senses led the lessons.

Each student received a STEM Kit delivered to their homes, complete with everything (and we mean everything) needed for a week of hands-on experiments.

Let’s take a look at what the students learned and taught, Monday through Friday:


Perfect the Putty with Crazy Aaron and Lily!

Monday’s class with Lily Wu and Drexel Co-Op, Ben Mastrorocco of Crazy Aaron’s Putty World in Norristown was all about quality control. The students compared samples of Thinking Putty against a ”standard” putty, and through trial and error (and several pipettes), experimented with adding glitter, pigments, dyes, oils and aromas to make the texture, smell, and color of the samples match with the standard.


Assemble Your Own Cassette with Invisible Sentinel

Kicking off with a virtual tour of Invisible Sentinel’s lab, veteran FirstHand mentor, Darryll Barkhouse helped the students assemble their own cassette -- the rapid diagnostic Invisible Sentinel developed to test for foodborne pathogens. Darryll also shared a brief history on how the process of checking for spoilage has evolved since the 1800s. The students then came up with original concepts for restaurants and used the cassettes to test for “salmonella” in their fictitious establishments.


All About Skin Tissue with Dr. Haydee Lara of GSK

The students finally got to use (and keep!) the microscopes in their STEM kits, along with their own box of slides containing specimens like housefly legs, cotton, and a one-of-a kind mouse skin tissue slide prepared by Dr. Lara herself, to mirror her own work with human tissue at GSK. Dr. Lara went through best practices for properly adjusting the microscope to examine the items, and after a presentation breaking down the key structures in human skin, the group was tasked with creating their own slide with any specimen they could find at home and capturing the images with their phone cameras to share later.


Chemistry of Stains Lab with BioLabs

Drew Kimberlin of BioLabs demonstrated the decontamination methods scientists use in the lab including physical cleaning, heat, UV light, chemicals and even vapor, and why these methods are so important to maintaining a safe lab environment Afterwards, using a tee shirt and some messy ingredients including ketchup, chocolate sauce, ink, oil, cherry juice, and soy sauce, the students tested each stain with different stain removal solutions to figure out which ones most effectively removed each stain.


Monell Taste Test

On Friday students met with Dr. Mackenzie Hannum from Monell Chemical Senses Center to explore their own smell and taste genetics with the Monell Flavor Quiz. The activity was led primarily by Mackenzie and one of the peer mentors, Sultanah Harper. Mackenzie also showed the class the COVID-19 SCENTinel cards they create at Monell, which is a simple smell test to help determine loss of smell associated with COVID-19 infection.

And that’s a wrap! Five days, five mentors, and five real-world STEM experiments for these ten students – all without leaving home.