Clemson University Honors College; College of Science

Honors students’ STEM education initiative wins competition prize


A design for a mobile STEM academy toolkit providing resources, volunteer support and community outreach to students in rural South Carolina schools earned three Clemson University Honors College students $1,000 each in a statewide competition.  

Mercy Crapps, a National Scholar and biological sciences major from Tallahassee, Florida, Ryan Mehlem, a biochemistry major from Greenville, South Carolina, and Natalia Nortz, a biological sciences major from Fort Mill, South Carolina, teamed up to create the winning proposal as part of the Pay It Forward program, sponsored by South Carolina’s Electric Cooperatives.

The program challenges students at Clemson University, South Carolina State University or the University of South Carolina to propose solutions to pressing social and economic problems in rural areas. 

Students work as teams to create a solution to a long-standing issue, presented as a research paper and video. Crapps, Mehlem and Nortz won for creating a STEM education toolkit that helps teachers provide their students with an experiential learning approach that can complement textbook learning or computer simulations in the classroom.

According to the team, they know from their childhoods that experiential learning tools could build a passion for STEM in students, especially in middle school.

“I remember from my middle school experience, I was able to do some molecular biology practices and techniques which was exciting and interesting,” said Mehlem. “And now I work with those in my own research, pretty much every day.”

When building their project proposal, the team’s research pointed to middle school as the time when experiential classroom learning could matter the most.

“In middle school, students decide what classes they want to focus on as they start to figure out their high school and post-graduation plans. It made me think about learning experiences I had at that age which helped me decide to keep moving forward with science,” said Crapps. “So I was like, let’s bring this to all the communities we can, specifically rural communities.”

They talked to staff at several rural schools throughout the state before developing a toolkit with STEM exercises that could be delivered by Clemson students, who would volunteer to periodically drive out to schools.

The students being surprised with the news from representatives from the Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina at the Honors Center on campus.

The students would arrive at the schools with STEM academy toolkit supplies and lesson plans in hand and engage students in interactive learning experiences that align with the seventh grade science curriculum. Sample experiments include burning steel wool or a “magic” burning dollar bill.

They plan to start with fewer than 10 schools before refining their toolkit and expanding to other locations. To accomplish that goal, the team realized they needed to set up a 501c charity organization that could compete for larger education grant programs, which they plan to use a portion of their prize winnings to fund.

“We realized that to be considered for many of the grants we were going after, we needed that nonprofit organization status,” said Nortz. “So we decided to spend the money to get a 501c established and use our winnings to start implementing this program at between one to five schools.”

The students are all part of the Dixon Global Policy Scholars program, a selective and intensive interdisciplinary learning opportunity for high-achieving Honors College students with a demonstrated interest in major national or global issues. Jeff Fine, who acted as the team’s project faculty advisor, co-leads the program while also serving as the Honors College’s Senior Associate Dean.

Fine said he was impressed by the team’s ability to create a winning proposal that addressed a pressing need in rural communities.

“Many of the programs and experiences we provide to Honors students encourage them to apply their skills and abilities towards making a difference on campus or in their communities,” said Fine. “I’m proud of Mercy, Ryan and Natalia for developing a proposal that can address a pressing need in rural schools throughout the state.”

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