Middle Schoolers Visit PCC to Learn About STEM Opportunities


WINTERVILLE—Pitt Community College welcomed Pitt County middle school students to campus this month to participate in EASE, a program billed as “a fun day of science and mystery” designed to introduce participants to nontraditional STEM careers.

Created by N.C. BioNetwork, “EASE” (Effective and Authentic Science Events) is a one-day outreach program comprised of hands-on activities to showcase community colleges, like Pitt, as a great first choice for STEM education. The hope, says BioNetwork Senior Director of STEM Outreach Tanya McGhee, is that students will get a firsthand look at PCC programs and facilities, interact with faculty and staff, and discover an interest in STEM careers that ultimately leads to a vibrant pipeline of local STEM workers.

McGhee noted that North Carolina’s life science industry is one of its fastest-growing sectors, but most students are unaware of the career opportunities it offers. To help address the lack of awareness, BioNetwork developed the EASE curriculum, trained PCC faculty on how to run the activities, and provided the materials and equipment used by the student participants.

McGhee explained that the program targets middle school because it’s not only a critical time for career exploration, it’s a point when research shows students begin to lose interest in science and math.

“By reaching these students early, there is an increased chance we can beat the decline in STEM interest …,” she said.

On Thursday, approximately 100 eighth-graders from Greenville’s Wellcome Middle School came out to Pitt’s Walter & Marie Williams Building with one mission: to solve a mystery using STEM activities. Upon their arrival, the students watched a video to learn details about the fictional case they’d be working on and potential suspects in the disappearance of a woman involved with filming a paranormal reality TV show.

From there, McGhee said the students rotated through four different hands-on STEM activities to analyze crime scene evidence. With lab notebooks in hand, they recorded their observations to use when discussing the case later in the day.

While one group analyzed footprint clues and employed paper chromatography in the hopes of matching ink discovered on a note left at the crime scene with ink from a pen belonging to one of four suspects, other students utilized gel electrophoresis to identify the source of clothing fibers found at the scene.

PCC Biotechnology Department Chair Christy Weeks explained that all of the black fibers the students tested looked identical, until the dye molecules were separated out through gel electrophoresis. By doing so, she said, it became clear that the black dyes tested were comprised of varying dye colors. That information allowed students to compare the fiber found at the crime scene with clothing worn by the suspects to see if there was a match.

After completing all four stations, the students reconvened in the afternoon to discuss their findings and hypotheses before watching a video to find out once and for all what actually led to the woman’s disappearance.

During the wrap-up session that followed, students heard from Alton Wadford, PCC Director of Career & College Promise and Off-Campus Programs, about Career & College Promise pathways. Wadford explained that Career & College Promise is a great way for students to earn college credits while they are still in high school.

PCC Assistant Vice President of Academic Affairs Lori Preast says she hopes students who participated in EASE gained valuable information that will help them make well-informed decisions regarding higher education and careers.

“Pitt Community College values each and every opportunity to partner with Pitt County Schools, and EASE was certainly no exception,” Preast said. “I was thrilled that principals from the schools involved were so willing to transport their eighth-graders to our campus so they could experience state-of-the-art STEM facilities, participate in hands-on science activities, and discuss educational and career options.”