Pitt-Greensburg’s Summer Science and Math Experience (SSME) will mark its 10th anniversary when students, faculty, staff, and counselors converge on campus this June for the five-day residential camp.
Forty-eight ninth graders representing eight school districts will participate in the activities that kick-off the evening of Sunday, June 24, and culminate with a luncheon and awards ceremony on Friday, June 29. Over the course of the event, the students will participate in workshops that cover a range of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) activities—all at no cost to the students, their families, or their school districts.
SSME is made possible through the generosity of several regional foundations. The McFeely Rogers Foundation has provided consistent support over the past decade, as well as The Eberly Foundation and The Grable Foundation. Other support has been received from the Greater Latrobe Partners in Education, The Greensburg Foundation Fund of the Community Foundation of Westmoreland County at The Pittsburgh Foundation, Atlas Foundation, Chevron Foundation at the Community Foundation of Fayette County, Bridgestone/Firestone Charitable Trust Fund, Waste Management, and McCutcheon Enterprises.
“SSME wouldn’t exist without the support of these foundations,” said Jodi Kraisinger, director of University Relations and Institutional Advancement, who manages the program. “Their generosity over the past decade has made it possible for nearly 300 regional students to participate in the program. Their support has also allowed the program to grow, so that each year, we have been able to increase the number of participating students and school districts.”
Also important to the program is the continuing commitment of the faculty and staff who create the SSME experience. For instance, husband and wife duo Todd and Katrina Brown, who both hold doctorates in Physics and teach at Pitt-Greensburg, have spent the majority of the past 10 summers living on campus in a residence hall for a week as the official resident advisors to the group.
They take on other duties, too. Katrina drives the van and chaperones the cohorts to their field trip experience. This year, the students will visit the Tour-Ed Mine & Museum where they will go one-half mile underground into a western Pennsylvania coal mine to see how coal was mined in the 1850s vs. how they do it today, while learning about earth science. Todd looks at science through a creative lens that often incorporates movies, science trivia (with a real live space shuttle tile), and astronomy.
Past field trips have included visits to the Breazeale Nuclear Reactor (Penn State) and the Angelo J. Taiani Planetarium at St. Vincent College. Katrina will also lead a workshop on light and sound waves that incorporates Physics principles.
“I love seeing how much the students enjoy learning science,” said Katrina. “They all leave with the realization that science can be fun! I get to know the students better, and I love watching them discover that there are other people like them, others who share their interests. [SSME] is a place where students accept each other regardless of what they are like. In the end they all bond and they are all friends. They don’t judge one another—I like seeing that!”
Katrina touches on part of the magic of SSME. The students are placed in designated cohorts usually with only have one or two other students from their own high school present. By the end of the week, through the shared activities and experiences, the students have bonded and become one cohesive group. Much of that occurs through the influence and guidance of the student-counselors who oversee the ninth graders. The student-counselors are Pitt-Greensburg Education majors whose job it is to make sure that everyone is where they need to be, make sure everyone is participating, and handle any minor disciplinary issues. Their most important role, though, is to rev up the fun and help the ninth graders to adjust and enjoy this time away from home.
This year, Abigail Cox, Conor Cortazzo, Randall Duke, and Haley Stonebraker will fulfill that role. They will carry on the traditions of the 15 student-counselors who came before them—including some exciting surprise activities.
The workshops, which are taught primarily by Pitt-Greensburg science faculty, include:
- Computer Project
- Stream Ecosystem Analysis
- A Morning/Afternoon of DNA
- Math Bridges
- Secrets of Science Toys
- Chemistry Demonstrations
- Science of Healthy Eating
- Overview of Astronomy
- Light & Sound Waves (Physics)
- Field Trip to Tour-Ed Mine & Museum
Packed in-between and around the workshops are extra-curricular activities like an escape room experience, a campus scavenger hunt, sand volleyball, basketball, and ping pong.
Over the past 10 years, 271 ninth graders have logged 11,517.5 student-hours spent in science-related activities. They represent 11 school districts and four counties. Oh, and those water balloons, there have been about 7,000 of them filled and thrown during the annual battle between the ninth graders and the student counselors.
The late Thad “Dr. Z” Zaleskiewicz, PhD, an emeritus professor of Physics, established SSME in 2009. Dr. Z’s vision and legacy: to help students who are going into the ninth grade to experience the wonder and excitement of the science and math fields. Over the past 10 years, SSME has grown from 11 students representing one school district and county to 48 students representing nine school districts and four counties (Allegheny, Fayette, Somerset, and Westmoreland). Throughout the 10 years, students from Albert Gallatin, Connellsville, Derry Area, Franklin Regional, Greater Latrobe, Greensburg Central Catholic, Greensburg Salem, Mt. Pleasant, Turkeyfoot, and Uniontown have participated in SSME.
The program is successful in its purpose. A survey sent to the first five cohorts shows that 87 percent of the participants (who responded to the survey) were interested in pursuing a career in STEM. Of those respondents, 87 percent also believed that participation in the SSME program influenced their current educational and career aspirations in a positive way.
Some of the comments shared by past participants include:
- “It was a great camp. I was fascinated with what I learned, and it really helped me choose to have a major in the math and science field.”
- “SSME was one of the most fun and engaging learning experiences I’ve ever had. Thank you for inviting me to attend.”
- “It was truly a great and memorable experience. I learned a lot and had a blast! It really influenced my decision to major in engineering.”
- “I wanted to be a genetic engineer before attending SSME, but SSME made me want to do it even more!
- It was a wonderful experience that deepened my love of science. It also reassured me that I could matriculate successfully. Thank you for the program.”