Trenton students sample STEM fields at Princeton University Materials Academy

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This summer, the Princeton University Materials Academy (PUMA) welcomed 15 New Jersey high school students from underrepresented backgrounds for a three-week summer program that focused on materials science and engineering.

The annual program went virtual this summer due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead of performing hands-on experiments on campus with their peers, the students were assigned at-home, desktop experiments. Lectures, daily demonstrations and classwork with Princeton professors and PUMA instructors rounded out the rest of the virtual program.

PUMA’s goal is to recruit underrepresented minorities and females — most of whom attend Trenton Central High School and other area high schools — and engage and excite them about materials science and engineering. The program also encourages the students to pursue STEM careers.

“This was our first virtual PUMA after 19 years in Princeton University labs and classrooms,” said Daniel Steinberg, science and engineering outreach specialist for the Princeton Institute for the Science and Technology of Materials and the Princeton Center for Complex Materials (PCCM). “Our guest speakers and students were great, and the 2020 program was a success, with all the students completing and presenting their projects in materials science and sustainability.”

PCCM, which has hosted the summer program since 2002, is a Materials Research Science and Engineering Center (MRSEC) funded by the National Science Foundation. PCCM’s key partner for the program has been Upward Bound, a U.S. Department of Education initiative aimed at low-income and first-generation college bound students.

In addition to helping to identify and recruit participants, this year Upward Bound provided laptops to PUMA students who did not have access to technology and who otherwise could not have participated in the virtual program format.

The 2020 PUMA curriculum emphasized the importance of materials science in achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Topics included engineering design, polymers, sustainability, chemistry, topological materials, engineering shapes, “squishy” materials and self-driving cars.

“I really enjoyed how we were able to include the sustainable development goals and combine it with materials science,” said Krelyn Zacarias, a PUMA participant and rising senior at Princeton High School.

The concept of universal design also was introduced this year, with PUMA students interacting with Cary Supalo, a blind chemist and accessibility expert, who works as a research developer for Educational Testing Service. PCCM will host Supalo’s virtual 2020 Inclusion in Science Learning a New Direction (ISLAND) conference on STEM accessibility on Sat., Sept. 12.

Three Princeton graduate students who held discussion sessions with PUMA students about their career paths in STEM will continue to work with Supalo, PCCM researchers and staff to create a pilot outreach program to develop blind-accessible research and teaching modules. This is a new initiative by PCCM to improve science education and accessibility for people living with disabilities.

Additional PUMA instruction was provided by Joy Barnes-Johnson, a science educator at Princeton High School, and Jasodhara Bhattacharya, a former math and science teacher.

Several students, including Juan Lavarreda, a rising senior at Trenton Central High School, have attended PUMA multiple times in preparing to further their STEM studies.

“I really enjoy the science and the materials,” Lavarreda said. “Each year is a new learning experience.”

For more information about PUMA, visit the PCCM website.