FirstHand bills itself as promoting STEM education (science, technology, engineering and math) for local middle- and high-school youth. But as program manager Adam Durant explains, it is actually even more: “Science and entrepreneurship are in our DNA at the Science Center and subsequently at FirstHand. FirstHand adds design into the mix to provide a creative entry point into the STEM subjects. We use elements of engineering as well as technology and math, which are ever-present throughout our programs. Personally, I believe that combining design, science and entrepreneurship in our curriculum cultivates the development of relevant 21st-century skills – creativity, communication, collaboration and critical thinking.”
...I believe that combining design, science and entrepreneurship in our curriculum cultivates the development of relevant 21st-century skills – creativity, communication, collaboration and critical thinking.
Dignitaries gathered January 4 to cut a ribbon at FirstHand’s expanded facilities at 3675 Market Street, the new building where the Science Center is now headquartered. FirstHand’s 5,000-square-foot space features two wet labs equipped with microscopes, a fume hood, lab freezer, convection oven, PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction) machines and equipment for DNA analysis. The lab also features a makerspace pairing traditional hand and power tools with cutting edge prototyping tools such as laser cutters and Computer Numeric Control robotic carving machines, along with a digital studio equipped with laptops, design software and a large format vinyl cutter.
The new, state-of-the-art learning space shares the fifth floor with the new BioLabs@CIC co-work and shared lab facility, noted Science Center President & CEO Steve Zarrilli, so FirstHand students “are elbow-to-elbow with other scientists and technologists who are pursuing their ideas for innovation.”
At the January 4 event, the Science Center also announced that Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), along with PECO and the Exelon Foundation, have contributed funds to support FirstHand as part of the Science Center’s $3 million Ignite Innovation campaign.
The gifts are seen as an investment in building an educated workforce in Philadelphia by exposing students to career opportunities in science, entrepreneurship and design thinking. “Through the generous support of CHOP, PECO and the Exelon Foundation, we’re making a meaningful down payment on our city’s future,” said Zarrilli.
PECO President & CEO Mike Innocenzo concurred, noting “Programs like FirstHand support our efforts to serve as a leader in preparing a pipeline for our future workforce as new energy jobs emerge.” As for CHOP, “With heavy demands for patient care in our hospital – and breakthroughs generated in our labs – we want to inspire future generations to start early on the path of pursuing healthcare careers,” said Peter Grollman, senior vice president of external affairs. “Our work with the FirstHand program is one way we can prepare for our own growth right here in the community.”
“The Science Center is known for accelerating the commercialization of technology and supporting early-stage companies. Equally important to that work, however, is nurturing a workforce to support those businesses,” said David Clayton, Director of FirstHand. “FirstHand leverages the resources and knowledge base of the Science Center to create real-world learning experiences for Philadelphia youth.”
The Science Center is known for accelerating the commercialization of technology and supporting early-stage companies. Equally important to that work, however, is nurturing a workforce to support those businesses. FirstHand leverages the resources and knowledge base of the Science Center to create real-world learning experiences for Philadelphia youth.
In 2017, more than 300 local youth participated in FirstHand. Nearly two-thirds reported greater self-efficacy after participating and 90% said they enjoyed the program.
The Paul Robeson students who presented their projects on January 4 were challenged to identify and research a societal or environmental problem and propose an organization that focused on a solution. They met weekly for 10 weeks, guided by FirstHand staff and mentors representing companies in the Science Center’s network.
Their projects were:
- Opioid Dependency Prevention, a nonprofit model that uses a web platform and counseling to address the root causes of addiction;
- Devolviendo (the name conveys giving back) to raise funds in support of underfunded schools;
- Tender Loving Childcare, an app to provide positive parenting strategies for teenage and inexperienced parents; and
- Colorful Creations, a safe space for graffiti and street artists.
Attendees awarded the projects for best branding (Colorful Creations); best presentation (Opioid Dependency Prevention); most feasible (Tender Loving Childcare) and most relevant (Devolviendo). All four projects have been submitted to the Diamond Challenge, the University of Delaware’s international competition created to empower the next generation through entrepreneurship.
Commenting after the pitches, Durant said, “We wanted our students to feel empowered throughout this process. We wanted them to understand the importance of starting an idea even if they’re unsure of how it may come to fruition. With this showcase we feel that the student’s passion to make change in their community was evident and resonated with the audience.”