Summer Academy STEM Extension - for students who are blind or visually impaired

MRSEC grad, Jen Miller, mentors students as they learn about analyzing evidence in a crime scene

Starting in 2016, the Center for Nanoscale Science, in partnership with the Eberly College of Science Outreach (ECoS) Office, sponsored, developed, managed, and implemented an annual STEM-focused program for ~24 college-bound high school students who are blind or have low vision (BLV).  MRSEC graduate students serve as Science Mentors for every 3-4 students, and MRSEC outreach staff directly help to manage content planning, staffing, training, funding, scheduling, evaluating, reporting, etc.

The primary short-term goal of "STEM Extension" is to enhance the confidence and ability of students to successfully advocate for full participation and access to educational STEM activities in their high school classrooms and laboratories by engaging in introductory college-level experiments and activities in Chemistry, Physics, Plant Biology, and Forensics.  A STEM Career Night and a Research Expo, both with hands-on activities and interactive discussions with Penn State grads and faculty, provide information about majors and a variety of interesting STEM research topics and fields of study.  Current professionals in scientific fields (who are also BLV) serve as keynote speakers to share their inspirational stories and wisdom. 

External evaluation efforts are conducted by a graduate student from the College of Education. These include pre and post program surveys, audio/video recordings and observations, and exit interviews.  Summary data has consistently indicated strong, positive program impact on participants and valuable insights for improvement that inform following year changes and planning. Further, the positive impact on graduate student Science Mentors and faculty instructors has been notable, such as: strengthening of communication skills, broader awareness of classroom adaptations that increase learning for all students; increases in confidence and willingness to successfully accomodate and advocate for students with disabilities in the college classroom and laboratory environment.

In addition to ECoS, partners include Pennsylvania's Bureau of Blindness and Visual Services (BBVS) – an arm of the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation (OVR), and the Pennsylvania Training and Technical Assistance Network (PaTTN) – part of the Department of Education’s Bureau of Special Education. These government agencies sponsor and organize an annual college-transition and preparation program called Summer Academy which is held on campus each summer.  Summer Academy students are the participants of the STEM Extension program.

Video overviews of each program are posted online:
     2016 Pilot Program  
     2017 Full Week Program - Energy & Sustainability Theme
     2018 Weekend Program
     2019 Weekend Program
     2020 Program - cancelled due to CoViD-19
     2021 Program - cancelled due to CoViD-19

Annual reports to NSF and assessment results are available upon request.  If interested, please contact Kristin Dreyer (kad4 @