SNOW HILL – Over the last few years, internships and summer camps offered by NASA in partnership with the Mid-Atlantic Institute for Space and Technology (MIST) have caused a drastic increase in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) in Worcester County, according to a report presented to the County Commissioners Tuesday.
“Our program is about creating hope,” said Brenda Dingwall, representative from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility.
Dingwall informed the commission that NASA has hired 77 Worcester County residents as interns for their Step Up program over the last five years. Of those, 69 percent decided to follow STEM-based careers after completion of the internship.
Dingwall expressed the belief that generating interest in STEM skills in area students is key to helping them develop and compete in a modern job market.
Dingwall reported, “29.3 percent of children under 18 in Worcester County live below the poverty level.”
By taking part in the Step Up internship, Dingwall explained that students are learning valuable and desired skills that could easily by applied to fields like engineering and science, which are some of the most profitable available at the moment.
Besides the internship, NASA and MIST also offer a Reach for the Stars summer camp every year, which serves the same general purpose as the internship but to a wider and younger audience. Dingwall stated that the camps are also especially effective on non-traditional students and those who might have difficulty in other programs, such as students with disabilities and children who have incarcerated family members.
While just over a quarter of all Worcester youth live below the poverty level, Dingwall reported the numbers are most frightening when looking at students with disabilities, 80 percent of which are likely to live below the poverty level their entire lives.
However, when giving those same students STEM skills, Dingwall claimed that the amount that stay below the poverty level indefinitely falls to just 12 percent.
“They’re some of the brightest kids we have in our county,” Dingwall said of the at-risk youth, 10 of which have attended Reach for the Stars. Of those, Dingwall was proud to announce that none of them have since been incarcerated and that half of them are in the top 5 percent academically in regards to test scores.
“We’re about building dreams for our children,” said Dingwall.
“It’s absolutely mind boggling to see them,” said Commissioner Judy Boggs, who has visited the summer camp in the past. “Sometimes I wonder if we demand enough from our students.”
Fotios Skouzes, executive director of MIST, pointed out developing STEM skills has to start early and that it was important to grab their interest.
“Kids are crazy about rockets,” he joked. “If we can reach middle school students, we can mold their minds.”
According to Skouzes, Worcester is already on the path to generating STEM skill interest early. The fact that Maryland test scores in math are the highest in the country and that Worcester’s test scores in math are the highest in Maryland add weight to Skouzes’ claim.
“This wouldn’t be possible without your support,” he told the commission.
While neither Dingwall nor Skouzes were petitioning the commission for funding at the time, they did ask that the group continue to support Step Up and Reach for the Stars in the future, a request that met with unanimous approval.