Union STEPS Up

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By Gabriella Levine

 

On Saturday, Feb. 5, College Park Hall hosted the Science Bowl Regionals for high school students enrolled in the Science and Technology Entry Program, also known as STEP.

The Science Bowl is a nationwide academic competition sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy. It tests students’ academic knowledge in all areas of science. Sixty or more teams participate in question-and-answer competitions, which are similar to a simulation of Jeopardy. The winning team from each regional earns an all-expenses-paid trip to the National Science Bowl in Washington, D.C.

Generally, students from the same high school compete on a team. This regional is a unique exception because it is composed of sixteen teams of students enrolled in the STEP program who come from several different high schools. Additionally, STEP is regulated by institutions of higher education and is designed for minorities or underprivileged students in grades 7-12.

Since 1994, Union College has been awarded a grant by the New York State Department of Education allowing the college to form collaborative relationships with schools in surrounding areas at no cost to participants.

Other participating colleges are Albany Medical College, FMCC, Monroe Community College, RIT, RPI, SUNY Albany, SUNY Fredonia, and Syracuse University.

Union’s STEP program is managed by both students and faculty and provides participants with workshops, mentoring, and activities during the academic year. In the summer, programs are conducted with the intent of encouraging the pursuit of higher education in science, math, technology, and engineering.

Janet Sweeney, program coordinator at the Kenney Community Center, the core of Union’s community service outreach programs, explains that the STEP program “gives high school and middle school students the opportunity to interact with college students and professors.”She adds that this exposure to a college atmosphere often “inspires students to go to college and pursue careers. Some students are the first in their families to go to college.”

Ten of the top STEP students from nearby high schools are chosen to compete on two teams in the Science Bowl Regionals. The teams are coached by Denly Lettsome ‘11 and Emilia Strzalkowska ‘11, with assistance from Christopher Vargas ‘11.

The coaches and participants dedicate a significant amount of time preparing for the competition, and have met two to three times per week since November for intensive study sessions.

Last Thursday night, Feb. 3, the STEP teams and coaches gathered at the Kenney Community Center for a last minute study session that rivaled the atmosphere of a typical classroom.

Instead of holding a review session, the casual event was filled with laughter, junk food, and good humor, emphasizing the satisfaction and gratification of the experience felt on behalf of both students and coaches.

Jocelyn Girigorie, a denior at Schenectady High School, remarks that the Science Bowl and the STEP program are “a lot of fun because you get to meet new people. You get to know teachers and students from Union on a personal level.”

“By participating in STEP, we establish connections. It opens doors for us.” Unlike the stressful atmosphere of high school, Noor notes that “our study sessions put me in a positive mood. There’s no stress and no one to judge,” said Suleiman Noor, a senior at Niskayuna High School.

Both Girigoie and Noor have hopes to attend Union due to their familiarity with both professors and students from the college.

The experience is equally rewarding for the Union volunteers who served as coaches, moderators, timekeepers, judges, and scorekeepers.

“I want to do counseling, and this gives me experience with middle school and high school students,” said Strzalkowska ‘11, a psychology major at Union and coach of one of the teams.

On Saturday, Feb. 6, fifty Union students volunteered at the event, which Sweeney considers to be “more volunteers than we’d ever need, and it truly shows that Union’s students find reward in participating.”

Although Union’s teams failed to make it to the final round, the senior team still walked away with a trophy for creating the best scientific structure during the challenge round.

21st District Congressman Paul Tonko (D) attended the event and was astounded by the level of academic knowledge illustrated by STEP students.

Tonko pointed out that the purpose of the Science Bowl is, “so in keeping with the general agenda of President Obama because it preps our work force and establishes our presence in a global race of clean energy and innovation.”

In recognition of the true significance of the Science Bowl, Tonko cleverly quoted President Obama’s State of the Union Address—“It’s time for us to celebrate the science fair as much as we celebrate the Super Bowl,” —and added a personal twist: “I think we need to celebrate the science fair even more.”

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