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Science Center Gives Philly Schoolkids 'Firsthand' Look at Science and Technology

Take a lab full of middle schoolers, dress them in lab coats, give them a pile of plastic bags, tools, equipment and enthusiastic instruction and, just like that, they’re transforming recycled plastics into new materials.

"Polymer Play" is just one aspect of FirstHand, theUniversity City Science Center’s expanded-and-rebranded initiative to expose kids from under-resourced Philadelphia schools to STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education. With its new name, a dedicated lab and an expanding roster of participating schools, the program employs creative exploration to teach kids about science and expose them to an array of career opportunities.

The new space offers scales, micropipettes, glassware, electronic sensors -- just the kind of hands-on goodies not generally available in a traditional classroom. Equally important is how FirstHand capitalizes on the vital innovation ecosystem at the Science Center. The lab is down the hall from emerging technology companies working out of the Port Business Incubator; they commit to hosting student groups at least six times a year. Among the companies serving as FirstHand mentors are Avid Radiopharmaceuticals, Integral Molecular andInvisible Sentinel.

By exposing young students to real scientists working in careers they might never have known about, the program sends a clear message that these jobs are not limited by gender or ethnicity.

"The reason the [STEM skills] workforce gap exists is because there is an exposure gap," explains FirstHand Director David Clayton.

On the day Flying Kite visited, students from West Philadelphia’s City School were using soldering and sealing irons and a heat press to fuse plastic bags into pencil cases, hats and pre-Halloween mustaches. On the surface, they were learning about the chemistry of plastics but there was a subtler lesson, too: how to take a project from initial idea, through brainstorming, design and prototyping to completion. And according to Program Manager Danielle Stollak, that process is exactly the same as the one employed by the companies down the hall.

More than 400 7th and 8th graders from the Alain Locke Elementary School,Belmont Academy Charter School, the City School and KiPP West Philadelphia Preparatory Charter School are participating in FirstHand; additional schools are expected to join later this fall and another two schools next semester. The program is also expanding to a full year and launching a high school initiative. For now, the students spend 25 hours a semester at FirstHand, culminating with a series of project fairs in December.

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Kristen Fitch

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