Partners, volunteers bring STEM learning to life

Erica Howard

Area students get to close their textbooks and open their minds with interactive educational initiatives from FSU Panama City’s STEM Institute. With the help of corporate partners and area volunteers, the organization showcases a hands-on approach to learning that brings STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education to life through robot demonstrations, summer camps, teacher training and community programs.

The STEM Institute was created in 2007 to provide educators with professional skills, create learning opportunities for K-12 students, cultivate regional partnerships and develop new education programs. It became an official Florida State University institute in 2011.

This summer, more than 200 middle and high school students built robots, coded Android apps, skimmed the waters of North Bay for marine life and analyzed fingerprints to learn about biotechnology.

Thanks to generous community supporters, most of the camps have no fee to attend, allowing students of any income level to participate.

Equipment, building materials and other camp expenses this year were funded by donations such as $80,000 from Naval Surface Warfare Center Panama City, $50,000 from the AT&T Foundation and $10,000 from the Marion G. & Barbara W. Nelson Foundation.

A $1,500 donation from the Durden Foundation will allow seven high school students to go behind the scenes to learn about the flight and operation of an aircraft. Come “Fly” with Us, which will be July 20-24 at FSU Panama City, typically costs $200 per student.

Previous corporate donors have included Gulf Power, RockTenn and ARINC.

In all, more than 2,000 students have participated in the STEM Institute’s summer programs. This year, the camps were expanded to bring STEM learning to campers at Rosenwald High School.

“When we started this, we didn’t know how big it would get, but we knew there was a need,” said Leon Walters Sr., an engineer and donor who helped pioneer the STEM program. “There’s a lot of promise in working with students.”

The interactive summer camps reinforce skills taught during the school year to help students remember complex concepts long-term, STEM Coordinator Ginger Littleton said.

The summer camps also train teachers, who in turn teach the student campers along with STEM professionals from area businesses and organizations. Engineers, scientists and other volunteers share their field experiences with the educators during camp activities to help enhance classroom experiences throughout the school year.

“We are blessed in our area to have many people with STEM expertise that can be shared during summer STEM camps,” Littleton said. “Teachers can’t know everything, so bringing outside expertise into our camps and classrooms is most helpful.”

Naval Surface Warfare Center Panama City, Gulf Power, Nanthealth, Island Air Express and Southwest Airlines donated employees’ time to this summer’s camps.

“It’s really wonderful to watch the light go on in the kids’ heads when they realize, ‘Oh, that’s how that works,’” said Steve Mahan, an engineer from the Navy base.

During the school year, the STEM Institute keeps the momentum going with class field trips and presentations by humanoid robots Sam E. Nole and Walters “Wally” Nole (who was named in honor of longtime supporter Walters). The robots, which were purchased through donations from the AT&T Foundation, tour classrooms with student handlers to demonstrate robot mechanics, computer programming and other STEM concepts.

“This program provides a solid foundation that has a constructive and long-lasting effect on young people as they look to and plan for their future,” said Ray Walker, AT&T Regional Director of External Affairs. “It has been exciting to witness first-hand the unquestionable positive impact that this learning opportunity has had on the participants.”

The AT&T donations also have been used to support stipends for the robots’ five student handlers, summer camps and other initiatives throughout the year.

“The quality and quantity of what we can offer our youngsters is directly related to the generosity of our donors,” Littleton said. “Funds with STEM focus allow us to creatively bring STEM learning to students from across the region. They allow us to push the STEM opportunities into schools and classrooms and, in some cases, to transform how students see their role as a learner and their opportunities in the workforce they will soon enter.”

As technology advances worldwide, understanding STEM concepts will become more important in the job market. According to the U. S. Department of Commerce, STEM occupations are growing at 17 percent, while others are growing at 9.8 percent.

“Our society is becoming more and more influenced by technology,” Walters said. “When we look at items we use in our everyday life like computers, cellphones, even kitchen appliances, it is imperative that our students become knowledgeable, informed participants in the science, technology, engineering and math that supports the continued development of infrastructure supporting our nation.”

Mahan said the STEM Institute’s initiatives are a wonderful way to spark a child’s interest in STEM subjects.

“Some kids are meant to be engineers; they took their toys apart to see how they worked,” he said, drawing from his own childhood experience. Through STEM initiatives, these children learn the steps in designing and refining technology and gain a role model in the process.

For more information about the STEM Institute, visit