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Kids get hands-on STEM experience at Clay Center

JUSTIN ROGERS | Gazette-Mail
Huntington East students Kaiti Swann and Rylie Richardson work together to create a robotic arm on Saturday at the Clay Center. They and a group of other students traveled to Charleston for a weekend event sponsored by the state's National Youth Science Foundation.
JUSTIN ROGERS | Gazette-Mail
Cody Wheeler from Warwood Middle School assembles a robotic arm piece by piece Saturday. Before building the arm, Wheeler and fellow students explored the Clay Center to learn how the building has become energy efficient.

A rambunctious group of middle school students huddled over a table in upper floors of the Clay Center, scratching their heads at the design of a complicated 400-piece robotic arm.

On Saturday afternoons, most middle school students would like to be as far away from the classroom as possible — especially on Saturdays that kick off the week of spring break.

Before their vacations begin, they’ll have assembled that robotic arm, learned about tornadoes, discovered how energy efficient buildings operate and get an up-close view of how the scientific method works.

“Schools serve a very important purpose, but opportunities for kids to be outside of the classroom doing some activities allows them to explore different scenarios,” said John Giroir, director of the state’s National Youth Science Camp.

Since the end of February, seventh and eighth grade students have traveled from all across West Virginia to take part in the National Youth Science Foundation’s weekend getaways. These events, the Youth Science Discovery Experience Field Trip, is designed to spark students’ interest in studying in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

The weekend brought students from Wheeling and Huntington to Charleston for one such weekend, the first time the weekend event has been held at the Clay Center.

Funding for the weekend event is provided by the Governor’s STEM Initiative, EQT and the Hamilton Foundation.

“I tell my students, if you go into one of these fields in the future, you are more likely to get a job. Some fields are really hard to get a job in after you graduate from college, but if you go into science, technology, engineering or mathematics, you’re pretty guaranteed to have a job,” said Debbie Clark, a middle school science teacher chaperoning her students during the weekend.

Clark, who plans on retiring this year after 22 years of teaching, said her school is trying to put an added emphasis on the STEM education. Her school, Warwood Middle in Wheeling, received a grant from the Education Alliance, a Charleston nonprofit which supports education by promoting business and community involvement in public schools.

That grant helps teachers integrate STEM principles across all classes. As an example, Clark explained that if, in an English class, students read a book about a bridge, the teacher might let the students build their own bridge to learn basic principles of engineering.

So when Clark learned that her students could take part in a weekend trip with the National Youth Science Foundation, she knew she had to apply.

“They seem excited to be here,” Clark said. “Some of them have experiences with robotics before this. We have robotics in our school that students — sixth grade students — have been working on.”

Reach Jake Jarvis at jake.jarvis@, 304-348-7939, or follow @NewsroomJake on Twitter.

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