STEM programs introduce students in rural Alabama to career possibilities

The University of Alabama System is providing new opportunities for students in the state’s rural counties to learn about cutting-edge career options in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math.

One example of these efforts is the STEM Entrepreneurship Academy at The University of Alabama, which invites area high school students to campus for a week in the summer for a full schedule of classroom instruction and hands-on experiences. Food and housing are provided.

The program initially focused primarily on entrepreneurship, but it was rebranded four years ago because of the importance of STEM education and the surge in related career fields, said Dr. Holly Morgan, director of Community Education at UA’s Center for Community-Based Partnerships.

Alabama STEM education
The STEM Academy sponsored by The University of Alabama’s Center for Community-Based Partnerships offers experiences in science, technology, engineering and math, while also expanding the campers’ knowledge of business start-up and entrepreneurship skills. (IMAGE: UA)

Now, the academy involves faculty members in STEM and entrepreneurial fields, along with multiple entities on and beyond campus. It is designed to help students understand STEM as fields of study, as well as entrepreneurship concepts essential to the workplace and for business startups.

The most recent academy included 29 rising sophomores and juniors from 11 high schools in West Alabama. During the week, students were challenged to design a product or service that addressed a problem in their school or community with a hypothetical $2,000 seed grant.

“Many students in these areas had not been able to come to a college campus or had access to the resources and opportunity that exist here,” Dr. Morgan said. “Students often aren’t even aware of some of these career fields.”

Prior to the camp, organizers set up a Google Classroom platform where students could communicate with educators and offer feedback.

“A lot of students say they never would have considered these careers, or they didn’t know science could be so much fun,” Dr. Morgan said. “Our goal is to get them to see things in a new light and in different areas.”

Responses from students who attended the Academy show that the effort is working.

“I’ve never been to anything like this and it [the camp] opened me up to new things,” said Asia Ikner, a sophomore at Sumter Central High School.

Before attending the STEM Entrepreneurship Camp, Ikner planned to be an athletic trainer. But she was fascinated by engineering after spending one week in the Academy.

“If I hadn’t come here, I wouldn’t know about engineering,” she said. “It was eye-opening.”

Alabama STEM education
GEAR UP Alabama students learn about computer coding during summer camp at the University of Montevallo. (IMAGE: UAB)


The University of Alabama at Birmingham is making bus trips to rural Alabama schools in a program called Black Belt Fridays.

The trips include a diverse mix of UAB students, faculty and staff, who spend time mentoring, tutoring and celebrating the high school students.

Black Belt Fridays are part of UAB’s Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness of Undergraduate Program, or GEAR UP Alabama. Now in its fifth year, GEAR UP Alabama is a competitive grant program of the U.S. Department of Education that increases the number of low-income students who are prepared to enter and succeed in postsecondary education.

The strategy involves providing states and local community-education partnerships with grants to fund support services to high-poverty middle and high schools.

The trips are designed to encourage both students and volunteers, said Dr. Samantha Elliott Briggs, project director of GEAR UP Alabama.

“Our school communities are really proud,” she said. “They know they don’t have everything they need, but that is not a reflection of their hearts, spirit or efforts. They enjoy being able to show us when they are doing well.”

UAB representatives on the Black Belt Fridays excursions are almost equally divided between education and STEM fields, Dr. Briggs said, which means there is ongoing exposure to those career paths.

“Students get to learn firsthand our college and career journeys, what our profession is, and what route we took to get there.  A lot of our stories are stories of resilience. Many of these children mistakenly think it’s one and done, if you don’t get it right at first, it’s over. Having people come and share their own path is helpful,” she said.

UAB representatives are encouraging students to go into a field where their certain skill sets are needed and where growth is inevitable, and a lot of that is STEM, Dr. Briggs explains.

“We’re trying to help students think differently about access and opportunities and beyond the limitations of what’s right in front of them,” she said. “We see those seeds being planted and watered and we see growth. Those are the exciting things, watching them get out of their shells and ask questions.”

Alabama STEM education
UAH mechanical engineering students overhauled a project designed to demonstrate the effects of water-flow systems in a farm environment for students at Walnut Grove Elementary School. (Image: Michael Mercier/UAH)


At The University of Alabama in Huntsville, engineering students in Dr. Christina Carmen’s senior design course take up the challenge of building interactive STEM tools for students at area elementary schools.

The ongoing program helps spark an interest in STEM among the children, while giving the UAH students important lessons about designing projects, meeting deadlines and making presentations to a client.

Dr. Carmen said the program is a “win-win” for all involved.

“The sponsors promote the building of the future STEM workforce pipeline, my students learn critical engineering skills used in the workforce and the resulting product can actually be used in K-12 classrooms in order to provide hands-on learning experiences for STEM subject matter.”

Her students have delivered a variety of STEM tools to K-12 entities, including a Vertical Wind Tunnel and a Convertible Robotics Table to local Boys and Girls Clubs, along with a Mobile Roller Coaster and a Mobile Wild Animal Rescue System to area elementary schools.

“All of my students have the opportunity to select from a list of projects,” Dr. Carmen said. “Therefore, they choose to work on STEM outreach projects and understand the impact these tools will have on children. Safety is always the top-level requirement, and we also provide a teacher lesson plan and student worksheets.

“Delivery day is always very exciting as the young students are able to interact with the STEM tool and my students garner a great sense of pride knowing that their efforts will directly affect the children’s understanding of subject matter that is often presented in a very theoretical manner.”

As part of the program, UAH students visited Walnut Grove Elementary School, a Title I school in the tiny community of New Market (population: 1,500.) To inspire interest in STEM fields among Walnut Grove students, the UAH student team worked on an existing system designed to demonstrate the effects of water-flow systems in a farm environment.

The team designed pumps to simulate normal and heavy rainfall, created magnetic dams that could be used to direct water for flood control, and incorporated mechanical and hydro-power water wheels to generate electricity for a barn and silo.

“The team had a very difficult task in that they had to refine an existing system,” Dr. Carmen said. “It’s often easier to design and build a product from scratch than it is to troubleshoot an existing product.”

Once their projects are complete, the teams visit schools for a final demonstration and field enthusiastic questions from the children.

The largest sponsor of the program is the Tennessee Valley Chapter of Women in Defense, a long-standing promoter of STEM outreach efforts.

Deborah Fraley, a representative of the organization, said the college students provided an invaluable experience for their young peers.

“The opportunity for elementary and middle school students to see scientific and engineering principles demonstrated by tools they can directly interact with has proven to increase student interest in pursuing higher education and careers in technical disciplines,” she said.

UAH has played a prominent role in the development of STEM education in Alabama. It designed a pilot program that became the Alabama Math, Science and Technology Initiative at the Alabama Department of Education. The AMSTI program has put STEM activities and teachers in front of untold thousands of students across the state.