Expanded ‘real-world STEM’ program targets student excitement

Southern Research’s expanded STEM education efforts are making a difference in classrooms across Alabama, and even more students are in line to benefit from the program in the coming weeks and months.

A highlight was the Black History Month Science Fair, which Southern Research sponsored recently with Alabama Public Television and Birmingham Children’s Theatre.

Students were asked to create a project that complemented the research of a famous African-American scientist or engineer. The event, which drew 500 people, was held at Birmingham Children’s Theatre.

Southern Research STEM
Kathryn Lanier, who leads Southern Research’s STEM education program, engages with students.

It was followed by a performance of Rosa Parks and The Montgomery Bus Boycott and a panel discussion with African-American scientists and engineers who work at Southern Research and NASA.

The educational aspect was significant, but just the trip to Birmingham was meaningful for many students, said Anna Wheeler, a sixth-grade science teacher from Escambia County Middle School in Atmore.

“A lot of my students had never even been out of Atmore, so just the simple fact that they were invited to go to an event in another city and present their ideas was mind-blowing to them,” she said. “A lot of them were hesitant to even send in something because they didn’t think their ideas were good enough, so it was definitely a boost of confidence to be accepted into the science fair.”

As their buses traveled into downtown Birmingham, students were excited to see big buildings, and they were amazed by the expressway that runs through Red Mountain.

“The amount of pictures taken on the bus was unbelievable. We had a mini science lesson on how they carved through that rock,” she said.

Wheeler said the event was a huge stepping stone for all of the students.

“It really got them motivated,” she said. “A lot of students I don’t usually see participate in STEM activities came out of their comfort zone to create projects and make presentations. They can’t wait to do it again next year.”


Kathryn Lanier
Students pose with their awards at Birmingham’s inaugural Black History Month Science Fair, a partnership between Southern Research, Alabama Public Television and the Birmingham Children’s Theatre.

That excitement is a key goal of Kathryn Lanier, Ph.D., Southern Research’s first STEM Education Outreach Director. Since joining the non-profit organization last year, she has been busy planning events and designing experiments.

“Working on solutions to real-world problems is the heart of any STEM investigation. And that is what our program is doing,” she said. “We are deeply committed to engaging the students in true project-based learning.”

Lanier is serious about the impact of her work, as well as the importance of showing students what a STEM career looks like.

“Our No. 1 priority is to expose students and teachers to real-world STEM,” she said. “We want to give them an experience they can’t get inside the walls of their classroom. So, when I’m designing experiments, I want to make sure it reflects the work we’re doing at Southern Research.”

For example, at an upcoming Spring Break Camp at Southern Research, students will measure the effect of caffeine on cardiovascular function using chick embryos.

“While our drug development researchers aren’t necessarily testing caffeine, they are using chick embryos to test other drugs, and we’ll utilize many of the same techniques,” Lanier said.

This summer, a new STEM lab is scheduled to be complete, giving Lanier much-needed space to regularly host larger groups of students. It will be outfitted with 3D printers, robotics equipment, coding software, drones and other features to support an interdisciplinary approach.

Southern Research STEM
Kathryn Lanier, Southern Research’s STEM outreach director, shows students an experiment.

“By using a space that integrates engineering and technology into science, we’re combatting the misconception that science can be learned through a single lens,” Lanier said.

“Most importantly, teachers can bring their entire classes, because the lab will be able to accommodate 50 students at a time. While our scientists and engineers love hosting students in their labs, they do have important jobs solving the world’s hardest problems.”


Lanier, who holds a doctorate degree in biochemistry from the Georgia Institute of Technology, said her own journey with STEM education was challenging at times, and that’s something she shares with students today.

But she stuck with it, because she fell in love with research and the pursuit of solving problems. She was also encouraged by teachers and mentors, who showed her a new world of possibilities.

“Kids start developing ideas of what they’re good at when they’re very young, and if they’ve never been exposed to science and engineering they’re never going to realize their potential” she said.

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Southern Research hosts 70 Alabama students for STEM Day

High school students from across Alabama got a hands-on learning experience at Southern Research on Tuesday.

More than 70 students, who hail from Jefferson, Walker, Blount, Talladega and Morgan counties, were part of the organization’s STEM Day activities.

The event showcases Southern Research’s far-reaching capabilities involving drug discovery, drug development, engineering, energy and the environment, while offering a glimpse into the daily routine of scientists and researchers.

“I’m excited to get my hands on some really cool technology,” said Tavaria Johnson, a sophomore at Childersburg High School.

Southern Research STEM outreach
More than 70 students from across Alabama participated in Southern Research’s STEM Day activities.

Johnson said she plans a career in neurosurgery, and she’s fascinated by the advancements in drug development that have shed new light on the body’s nervous system.

“We have these diseases that people don’t think are curable, but we also have these awesome scientists who work daily to solve these problems,” she said.


STEM Day is designed to get students excited about science, said Kathryn Lanier, Ph.D., the organization’s first STEM Education Outreach Director.

“We want them to see what the life of an everyday scientist looks like,” she said. “A lot of these students don’t have exposure to what an actual career in science and engineering would look like. This is a great time for them to come and experience firsthand what our scientists and engineers do.”

Half of the students spent the day at Southern Research’s Southside campus, while the other half visited the Oxmoor campus. At both sites, they ate lunch while scientists and engineers gave an overview of their work.

The students included those from Childersburg, Ramsay, Holy Family Cristo Rey, Homewood, Jasper and Falkville high schools. Local homeschool students also were a part of the group.

Beth Kennedy, vice principal and director of career and tech education at Jasper High School, said STEM Day offers students valuable insight.

“Every time we can get them into a working environment and every time we can expose them to scientists and professionals in a field they’re interested in, they can see that this can be their future,” she said. “This is attainable for them, and it’s right here close to home.”


Southern Research STEM outreach
Southern Research scientists and engineers gave high school students from around Alabama a look at their jobs during STEM Day.

Southern Research’s efforts to boost STEM education in Alabama go far beyond a one-day event. The organization’s hiring of Lanier earlier this year is part of a broader goal to inspire more young people across Alabama to pursue careers in science and engineering.

She is working to create hands-on learning experiences that focus on science, technology, engineering and math for students.

“I have the coolest job in the world, and I love it even more every day. I’m developing a STEM outreach program to reach students and teachers across the state. The long-term goal is to increase their interest in STEM and also to make them better at it,” Lanier said.

Greater numbers of students entering STEM careers increases the local pool of talent for future employees. But more importantly, Lanier said, this is a way for Southern Research to give back to local communities.

“Our motivation is that we want to impact these kids in Alabama who are often forgotten, who don’t have as many opportunities as kids in a technology hub would have,” she said. “We want to spark their interest and learning in these fields.”

Jessica Moore, AP physics teacher at Jasper High School, brought eight students, all seniors who are in the midst of making important decisions about college and their course of study.

“I’m happy for them to be exposed to what is offered here at Southern Research, and maybe that will help them narrow down what they want to do in the future,” she said.


Southern Research expands STEM education outreach with key hire

Southern Research announced plans to expand the scope of its longtime educational outreach efforts with the hiring of a STEM educator to direct a statewide program that aims to inspire young people to pursue careers in science and engineering, in addition to training teachers involved in these fields.

Kathryn Andrea Lanier, Ph.D., joins Birmingham-based Southern Research as its first STEM Education Outreach Director. She will design programs that will bring stimulating, hands-on learning experiences focusing on science, technology, engineering and math activities to students across Alabama.

“Since its founding more than 75 years ago, Southern Research has executed on a mission to introduce young people to science and engineering, to inspire some as a career choice, and for all to be citizens better equipped to make important decisions,” said Art Tipton, Ph.D., the non-profit organization’s president and CEO.

“Kathryn coming on board furthers that important effort, and positions Southern Research more strongly to participate in the development of the next generation of STEM professionals powering new discoveries in Alabama,” Tipton added.

Southern Research STEM
Southern Research plans to expand the scope of its longtime educational outreach efforts with the hiring of a STEM educator to direct a statewide program.

The expansion of Southern Research’s STEM education efforts is made possible by funding from the Alabama Legislature earlier this year. This support prompted the organization to further study how its STEM outreach can complement existing programs across the state and fill gaps that currently exist.

“Southern Research has been responsible for many important accomplishments, from discovering seven cancer-fighting drugs and supporting the space program to contributing to key national defense programs,” Governor Kay Ivey said.

“It’s exciting to see this unique organization expand its mission to inspire young people in Alabama today to explore opportunities in the types of 21st Century jobs that will move our state forward,” she added.

Governor Ivey visited Southern Research’s downtown Birmingham campus on Friday, Sept. 8, where she met Lanier. She also talked with researchers including Rita Cowell, Ph.D., a neuroscientist studying Parkinson’s and other diseases; Rebecca Boohaker, Ph.D., a cancer researcher; Lindsay Miller, an associate scientist; Ken Jeffers, manager of resource recovery; and Jacques Cuneo, a materials engineer.

The governor is also addressed Southern Research employees during a short reception in the Martin Library.


Southern Research STEM education
Kathryn Lanier is joining Southern Research as its first STEM Education Outreach Director.

Southern Research is expanding its educational outreach at a time when STEM jobs are in demand. Figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) show that employment in STEM occupations grew by 10.5 percent between 2009 and 2015, compared to 5.2 percent for non-STEM jobs.

Highly sought-after STEM workers also earn more than employees in other fields. The average STEM salary was $85,570 in 2015, nearly double the $45,700 average for all occupations, according to BLS data published this year.

Lanier, who holds a doctorate degree in biochemistry from the Georgia Institute of Technology, has been heavily involved in STEM outreach programs. She has conducted workshops for STEM educators, directed hands-on science activities for elementary school students, and mentored high school and college students.

Lanier has authored several scientific papers, delivered presentations at conferences, and acted as an instructor in college-level lecture and laboratory classes.

She said her new position at Southern Research aligns with her lifelong goal of inspiring future generations of scientists.

“While biochemical research is my forté, STEM education and outreach is my passion,” Lanier said. “I not only consider STEM outreach work to be a form of giving back, but I also believe regaining and promoting science and math literacy is imperative to our country’s future. I am so grateful for the opportunity to empower the many diverse communities of Alabama and stimulate the state’s STEM learning environments.

“Southern Research has all the necessary components to provide exceptional educational experiences to those across the state,” she added. “We’ll do this together, and I am honored to be part of it.”

Southern Research STEM Day introduces students to possibilities

Students from across the metro area visited Southern Research campuses Wednesday for a behind-the-scenes look at the innovative work being done by the Birmingham-based nonprofit’s scientists and engineers.

Southern Research STEM 2016
Benjamin Owusu, a graduate research assistant at Southern Research, works with students on STEM Day.

The 2016 High School STEM Day drew 55 teens from schools in Birmingham and Mountain Brook, all who were selected based on their interest and achievements in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Southern Research staff from the Drug Discovery, Drug Development, Energy & Environment and Engineering divisions participated in the event, leading various experiments and operations tours.

Students walked through the steps involved in anti-cancer drug discovery and testing, specifically synthesizing and evaluating aspirin as a treatment and determining the viability of cancer cells. They also learned how to grow and study bacteria in the lab.

In addition, they performed destructive and non-destructive tests on metal materials and observed demonstrations of power plant operations, control loop integration and flue gas treatment.

The purpose of Southern Research’s participation in the STEM Day event is two-fold, said Watson Donald, director of external affairs.

“This helps Southern Research in giving back to the community,” he said. “That’s something that’s very important to us: Engaging the community and young, budding scientists and engineers.”

It also helps to create a pipeline of future job candidates, Donald said.

“We love hiring from Birmingham and the surrounding communities. If we can get boys and girls interested in these careers, then we can help create a local talent pool and keep these students working here after they have completed their education,” he said.


Southern Research STEM 2016
Infectious disease expert Tim Sellati speaks to students attending Southern Research’s STEM Day.

Kirk Mitchell, director of the Corporate Work Study Program at Holy Family Cristo Rey Catholic High School, said the STEM Day event reinforces what’s happening in the classroom and also gives students a clearer vision for the future.

“Experiences like this really help students understand what they’re learning in class as it relates to a career,” he said.

One of Mitchell’s students, Quandre James, said he learned how to tell the difference between living and dead cancer cells.

The 17-year-old senior works as a front office assistant in the UAB Department of Medicine as part of his work study program. Someday, he wants to be a music engineer.

“I love technology, and this gives me more insight on the technical aspect of my future career,” he said.

Amauri Pettaway, a Parker High School junior, is planning a career as an oncology pharmacist. Pettaway, 16, said she likes the problem-solving aspect of pharmacology, and her interest in oncology is driven by the fact that so much help is needed to fight cancer.

The STEM Day activities at Southern Research gave her more confidence in her career choice.

“The hands-on experiments were really helpful,” she said. “I feel this is for sure what I want to do.”

Southern Research STEM 2016
Students participating in STEM Day at Southern Research took part in laboratory experiments.
Southern Research STEM 2016
Students participating in STEM Day at Southern Research look into microscopes during an experiment.