Thirty years ago, Virginia Cunningham, a lab scientist at GlaxoSmithKline, decided she had had enough of being one of the few women of color in her industry. Cunningham shared her frustration during a dinner conversation with an employee of the Free Library of Philadelphia, and started a small program in a Montgomery County library to give more kids a taste of the sciences.

That was the start of “Science in the Summer,” said Becki Lynch, director of U.S. community partnerships at the pharmaceutical giant. Today, with many Pennsylvania schools holding off on introducing science classes until the fourth grade, the program is often the first — and perhaps most fun — exposure kids get to the sciences.

“The original intention of the program really was to reach out to folks who are not in the science fields and to bring [science] into the community,” said Lynch. While Cunningham originally ran the program on her own time, GSK quickly recognized its value and began funding it officially, partnering with the Franklin Institute to expand the curriculum.

This summer, children from all over the region participated in small groups at their local libraries, trying their hand at STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) skills. STEM education is invaluable in today’s economy, even in jobs traditionally considered “non-STEM,” according to a 2015 report from the National Science Board. And the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found that the number of science and engineering jobs continues to grow more than those of other professions.

But for many young students, meaningful STEM experiences are few and far between.

“I wish I could get science classes,” said Lauren Montague, 7, whose Delaware County elementary school starts science education in second grade, which she is entering this week. But that wasn’t soon enough for Lauren, who took part in her first “Science in the Summer” event this year.

Students extract wheat DNA at a Summer of Science event.
GlaxoSmithKline and the Franklin Institute
Students extract wheat DNA at a Summer of Science event.

This summer, the program’s theme was human physiology.

“We learned about a lot of different parts of the body,” said Lauren. “We also made these wheat DNA samples. It was real DNA, which I really liked. We also learned about fingerprints, which I thought was really cool.”

Darryl Williams, senior vice president of science and education at the Franklin Institute, says the program is for students like Lauren who want to learn, but don’t get the opportunity until they are older.

“The demographic we’re working with [has had], I would say, limited opportunities for exposure and being able to really have hands-on experiences in the way that we’re providing," said Williams, who oversees the development of the program’s curriculum.

“Many states do not teach science until fifth grade, when testing in the subject begins. If one’s first introduction into science is drilling at school for high-stakes tests, it does not make a compelling experience," said Edna Tan, an associate professor of science education at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She is not involved with the “Science in the Summer” program.

Pennsylvania educational standards do not require science to be taught until fourth grade. Many other states — including New Jersey, Maryland, and Delaware — have implemented the Next Generation Science Standards, which call for science education to begin earlier, and to introduce the problem-solving skills used in real-life STEM jobs.

While schools with more resources may be able to provide science education regardless of state standards, research by the Education Commission of the States shows that across the nation, schools in poorer districts have much less access to science education.

In Pennsylvania and other states, many people of color have access only to underfunded schools, which can perpetuate the lack of diversity in STEM careers. “Many students of color are turned off, turned away, denied robust STEM learning experiences, so they do not" continue in the field, Tan said.

Since Cunningham started the program in 1986, it has grown from one library in Montgomery County to classes in 26 cities nationwide. About 5,000 kids from the Philadelphia region and an additional 2,600 kids from across the nation attend each year. Cunningham is now retired and proud of her program’s success.

As a result of the program’s popularity, there is a lottery for the limited slots, but organizers still reach out to communities to encourage participation.

“In communities where they might not be as familiar with the program, they might not be looking for it. So what we’ve done the past few years is to do a lot of very targeted outreach, especially in Philadelphia County,” said Lynch.

For those that attend “Science in the Summer,” their experience can spark a career in STEM — as it did for Al Leszczynski, now a full-time science educator at the Franklin Institute.

“I remember ... being given a lab coat and a pair of goggles at the beginning. I thought it was the coolest thing in the world.... I didn’t have those sorts of science experiences again until I got to middle school,” Leszczynski said.

“I remember how much those moments [in the summer of 1991] meant to me as a kid, so I really enjoy being able to help do that for others,” Leszczynski said.

Tan, the North Carolina researcher, notes that educational reform is needed to support students after the end of their time at “Science in the Summer.”

“What happens when school science experiences are different from camp science? We need pathways to be laid between such informal experiences and school science experiences so that the spark can travel and build momentum,” Tan said.