ATLANTA – Mercer University’s STEM Education Innovation (SEI) Lab in the Tift College of Education recently partnered with the Hines Family Foundation (HFF) and Georgia Space Grant Consortium (GSGC) to support broader participation in STEM among underserved youth in Georgia.

This partnership, formally recognized as the HFF STEM Education and Training Alliance (H-SETA), will sponsor its first activities this summer. These activities include summer research experiences for high school students from Archer High School in Gwinnett County and the Atlanta International School, along with a summer STEM camp for middle school girls at STARBASE Robins, a Department of Defense-sponsored program at Robins Air Force Base in Warner Robins.

Mercer faculty members involved in the project include Dr. Justin Ballenger, assistant professor of STEM education and director of the SEI Lab; Dr. Elaine Thurmond, assistant professor of clinical practice and co-director of the SEI Lab; Dr. Susan Cannon, assistant professor of mathematics education; Dr. Meenakshi Sharma, assistant professor of science education; Dr. Zipangani Vokhiwa, associate professor of science in the College of Professional Advancement; and Dr. Randal Henne, visiting scholar in the College of Education. 

Additionally, five Ph.D. candidates from the College of Education’s graduate programs – Dr. Jami Friedreich, Stacey Rivers, Tynetta Jenkins, Caitlin Hochuli and Ashlee Lee – will support H-SETA program activities.

John Hines, executive director of the Hines Family Foundation and former chief technologist at NASA’s Ames Research Center, sought out this partnership to further the mission of HFF to support STEM engagement for underserved youth. As part of the partnership agreement, HFF will provide technical expertise and assistance for H-SETA outreach activities and establish the Hines STEM Inclusion Fund with an initial gift of $5,000 to Mercer’s SEI Lab. This fund will support the participation of Mercer graduate students and faculty and will also allow the SEI Lab to accept private donations to support STEM education outreach activities.

“The Hines Family Foundation is honored to partner with Mercer’s SEI Lab to jointly facilitate training of students in 21st-century STEM disciplines and skills using space as the motivator. The integration of the STEM education and outreach capabilities of Mercer’s SEI Lab with the technology and networking resources and expertise of HFF and the Georgia Space Grant Consortium provides powerful opportunities to address our common objectives to develop STEM learning tools and packages to enable student academic achievement and assist teachers to help them learn. HFF places particular emphasis on enabling and promoting capabilities for underserved participants,” said Hines.

Another important partner in the project is the Georgia Space Grant Consortium, administered by Georgia Institute of Technology’s School of Aerospace Engineering in partnership with NASA. GSGC was established by Congress in 1989 to develop a statewide network of academic, industry and nonprofit partners dedicated to maximizing the number of Georgia students from all backgrounds who are well-prepared in STEM fields and who are motivated to support space and aeronautics programs vital to the nation.

“The Space Grant program is a unique STEM program as it allows for each state to tailor to the needs of its own state. With a great higher education research infrastructure across Georgia, GSGC can support growing and supporting a strong STEM pipeline from K-STEM career,” said Lori Skillings, program director for the Georgia Space Grant Consortium.

GSGC will facilitate developing partnerships through its statewide network of partners. Mercer’s SEI Lab was able to apply for an additional $20,000 in grant funding through GSGC.

“By joining H-SETA, SEI Lab will be at the forefront of developing innovative solutions for expanding access and broadening participation in STEM for underserved students in Georgia,” said Dr. Ballenger.

H-SETA will support a variety of STEM education initiatives throughout the state, beginning this summer. The first activities sponsored by H-SETA will include a research experience for high school students and a summer STEM camp for middle school girls.

The summer research experience for high-schoolers will include students from Archer High School in Gwinnett County and the Atlanta International School. Students participating in this experience will interact with researchers from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center and Ames Research Center to design and implement research projects with additional guidance from STEM educators at their schools, Mercer faculty and research interns from Mercer and Georgia Institute of Technology Ph.D. programs.

The major goals of this initiative will be to engage students and educators in meaningful STEM experiences that will enrich learning and inspire students to pursue STEM careers in the future.

“Our partnership with NASA, Mercer, The Hines Family Foundation and the Georgia Space Grant Consortium is exactly the type of collaboration needed to plant the seeds necessary to increase the representation of women in technology. Opportunities like this give these young women early and meaningful exposure to STEM careers that allow them to work with STEM practitioners on real-world problems that affect us all. These students will get a chance to work on problems similar to those we are facing on Mars and the Moon. How cool is that?,” said Dr. Marsha Maxwell, head of technology and innovation at Atlanta International School.

Eric Stoker, STEM coordinator at Archer High School, stressed the project’s impact on supporting integrated STEM learning experiences for students.

“Archer is excited to be partnering with Mercer University’s STEM Education Innovation Lab, the Hines Family Foundation and the Georgia Space Grant Consortium. STEM fosters ingenuity and creativity, builds resilience, encourages experimentation, teamwork and knowledge application, and teaches problem-solving. Our students are being exposed to things that they never thought were possible. Archer looks forward to what the future holds with these partnerships,” said Stoker.

Middle school girls from across the state will have the opportunity to participate in a summer STEM camp developed in partnership with STARBASE Robins, a STEM education initiative sponsored by the Department of Defense and housed at Robins Air Force Base. The Georgia Association of Conservation Districts (GACD) is also partnering on this initiative.

The one-week STARBASE Girls’ Summer STEM Academy will be implemented using a blended delivery model where students will attend virtual sessions for five days. The week will culminate with students meeting in Henry County to engage in outdoor socially distanced, project-based learning activities, including operating aerial drones and collecting atmospheric data using tethered high-altitude balloons.

“This summer academy for girls will allow middle school girls to experience the intersection of STEM, agriculture and conservation, and the possibilities that are available to them as career choices in those fields. It will allow them to see where their interests are in these fields,” said Wesley Fondal, executive director of STARBASE Robins.

Dr. Rob Helfenbein, associate dean of research in Mercer’s College of Education, emphasized the importance of partnerships such as the H-SETA for advancing STEM education in Georgia and providing a platform for Mercer students and faculty to engage in impactful research activity. 

“We in the Tift College of Education are very excited to start this powerful partnership with the Hines Family Foundation, GSGC and local schools, and only see it growing into further projects and opportunities for Georgia’s students. This is only the beginning as we will be able to leverage the deep expertise of our partners and the educational guidance of Mercer faculty in creating powerful, innovative experiences for these learners,” said Dr. Helfenbein.

About the College of Education

Mercer University’s Tift College of Education – with campuses in Macon, Atlanta and the University’s two regional academic centers – prepares more professional educators than any other private institution in Georgia. Named for the former women’s college that merged with Mercer in 1986, the College of Education offers baccalaureate and graduate degrees, and is guided by the conceptual framework of the “Transforming Educator,” which supports those who aspire to grow professionally throughout their careers, while also seeking to transform the lives of students. For more information, visit education.mercer.edu.

Kyle is the director of media relations at Mercer. In addition to being the primary media contact for most academic and administrative units of the university, he coordinates hometown and university news releases and serves as editor of the News@Mercer e-newsletter and Reach magazine.​