SciTech Institute offers STEM Starts for Winston students

by Rich Lewis

The best jobs of the future will be in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields. Thanks to the Wake Forest Innovation Quarter, Winston- Salem State University and the business community, students from the WSFC school system are getting a serious leg up in these fields thanks to an innovative SciTech Institute Summer Camp.

Last Thursday, I was able to look in on one of the SciTech camp’s groups as they got the chance to learn about the careers at work in homegrown tech company Inmar’s campus in the Innovation Quarter. Students were treated to a tour of the facility and a talk in one of the highest tech presentation rooms to be found anywhere.

Hosted by Inmar’s Shannon Hanington, the company’s team gave students an understanding of how they worked with retailers and manufacturers across the country to electronically keep up with the credits and debits involved with coupon usage, from promotional tracking to payouts. They also learned how the company handles returns between retailers and manufacturers, and how they are involved in the pharmacy industry keeping track of prescription fulfillments and payments.

The students were engaged and asked a number of insightful questions, but then they dug in even more as a presentation team of Inmar technology specialists (Melissa Bube, Tori McGillen and George Peterson) explained how Inmar has long been a supporter and mentor for the Girls On Fire #5679 Robotics Team. The girls, and their mentors, are given a small set of standard parts and a description of the problem six weeks ahead of the competition. Recently, the teams were tasked with creating a trio of robots that would have to collect balls and then fire or place those balls into targets in an arena. The trick was that another team would be in there as well, competing for the balls and dodging or overcoming obstacles that littered the playing field.

Hanington, a senior manager of corporate communications for Inmar, explained that while this was the company’s first year participating in the SciTech Institute Summer Camp, the company had long been a supporter of local STEM education efforts, participating in both the MathMatters and Analytics programs.

“We think it’s important to work with kids like these because here, we all use STEM in our work in some way. It’s not just our tech teams, but our creatives teams and marketing departments as well.”

“A tour like this is a part of how you can get kids interested in these fields,” she continued. “This engages the students and you can see the excitement on their faces.”

She went on to say how companies like Inmar depend on students like these for their future workers and innovators.

That’s no secret to Denise Johnson, director of the Wake Forest Innovation Quarter’s SciTech program. An associate professor of Middle Grades Math at Winston-Salem State University, Johnson has long been an advocate for getting children, particularly those who might not have a lot of financial advantages, exposure to these fields of learning.

“SciTech encourages these kids to think and talk about jobs in the STEM fields and then gives them an opportunity to see those in action from entry-level jobs all the way up to the professional levels,” she said. “And it gives companies like Inmar a chance to get at school age children at a level other than as a consumer base. They might just be reaching some of their future employees.”

Johnson said the summer camp program is serving 100 students this year, which are then broken up into groups that rotate through a number of local STEM-type businesses in the Innovation Quarter and some academic learning opportunities as well.

The program has been running for about six years now, and features the hard work of a lot of volunteers, both from local businesses, college students and local educators.

This year, there are even some former camp participants who have come back during their own college summer breaks to help share the experience with the students. The two-week camp is designed as well, Johnson said, to be an affordable experience for the families participating, with a cost of only $10 per student for the whole camp, with meals provided and even some limited transportation.

It is an all-day camp, also, meaning that working parents can have their children participate without disrupting their own work schedules.

The program, Johnson said, is supported through the generosity of a number of local business partners and the help of a whole host of volunteers. There is an open recruitment of students to participate through the group’s website (www. innovationquarter. com/community/scitech-institute/), the local school district and special interest groups, particularly Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Northwestern North Carolina.

“We want this to be open to every interested student and there are no criteria to participate than the student’s age and grade level,” Johnson said. All fourth through seventh grade students from Winston-Salem/ Forsyth County are open to participate in the camp. !

RICH LEWIS is a father, husband, writer and cook who makes his home in Greensboro, NC.