Appalachia, a region of the United States that stretches from New York to Mississippi, is commonly associated with rural, sprawling landscapes, an economy reliant on coal mining, forestry and manufacturing, and populations that have historically struggled with overcoming adversity. Yet, nestled in between the peaks and valleys of this region are world-renowned hubs for scientific and technological innovation; one being Oak Ridge National Lab (ORNL) in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.
For 30 years, ORAU and the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) have selected excellent students and teachers from Appalachia to receive a residential science, technology, engineering, math (STEM) learning experience at ORNL through the ARC/ORNL Summer STEM Program. Each year, high school students and teachers, as well as middle school students, spend one to two weeks in Oak Ridge researching alongside ORNL scientists and mentors. In 2019, 36 high school students, 16 high school teachers and 26 middle school students participated in the program.
“Many exciting opportunities open up for participants in the ARC/ORNL Summer STEM Program. Often, participants develop a new interest in STEM subjects and then continue to pursue STEM careers,” said Chris Nelson, who manages the program for ORAU.
One student attending the program in preparation for her future was upcoming high school senior Sky Green from Albany, Ohio. In pursuit of both a military career and a career as a meteorologist, the opportunity to attend a “STEM” program caught her eye.
“I have to take the ASVAB again because I’m going into the military and I have to raise my score,” explained Green. “Taking computer tech will help raise my score for the Marines and then later help with becoming a meteorologist.”
Green’s research in the ARC/ORNL Summer STEM Program was focused on printed electronics for low-cost sensors and electronic systems. But first, she had to be accepted through the program’s competitive application process. All students involved in the summer institute must be nominated by their state’s governor to attend.
“I was the only person from my school chosen to come here. One other person applied, that I know of, and did not get accepted, but I did. So it’s pretty amazing,” she said.
In addition to better preparing for her career aspirations, Green said her favorite part of the program was the people. And for a program that has been around so long, some of the program facilitators and mentors get grandfathered in—literally.
Meet the program facilitator who program participants lovingly refer to as “Papaw.”
Jerry Sherrod, a computer science and information technology professor at Pellissippi State Community College, has been involved with the ARC/ORNL Summer STEM Program for at least 10 years. When asked why he continues to return, he endearingly turned to his supercomputing students.
“These people right here. They make it worth my time coming out here in the summers, assisting them in learning new technologies and increasing their marketability as scientists,” Sherrod said.
And in his 10 years working with students, he has seen firsthand the impact that the ARC/ORNL Summer STEM Program has made on the lives of participants from Appalachia. One alumnus from Kentucky, Sherrod said, is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom.
“This program is important for economic development, as well as the educational development of the students,” Sherrod explained. “Who knows where that student would have been without opportunities like this?”
Sherrod’s current students offered similar sentiments about their experience in the program’s 30th summer.
“I learned a lot that I never really thought I could because computer programming was never something that I was interested in,” said Pennsylvania high school student Katryna Williams. “But, after being with ‘Papaw’ and all these wonderful people for two weeks, I am actually very interested in it now.”
Since 2000, the ARC/ORNL Summer STEM Program has provided this fully funded, residential STEM learning opportunity to a total of 720 students and 299 teachers across Appalachia.
Watch the 2019 ARC/ORNL Summer STEM Program recap
The ARC/ORNL Summer STEM Program culminates with group presentations by students and teachers about their projects and research findings. In addition to research, many other activities are incorporated into the program to promote teamwork, expose students to college opportunities, and promote pride in the cultural richness and historical importance of the Appalachian region.
For more information about K-12 student programs, as well as other classroom opportunities, please contact K12@orau.org.