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High school students get hands on with STEM in summer program at Seminole State

(L-R) High school students Gabriel Melendez-Cetto, Nicholas Smith and McKenzie LaPierre test the functionality in the sun of a solar-powered air conditioner they built in Seminole State's Engineering Technology Summer Program.

Twenty students from Hagerty, Lake Howell, Lyman, Oviedo, Seminole and Trinity Prep high schools gained hands-on experiences in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) through the Solar Survival: Engineering Technology Summer Program at Seminole State College of Florida June 5-8.

The program, held at the College’s Oviedo Campus, featured a project-based learning course with an online learning component. According to program coordinator Sam Luccisano, this annual summer program, funded primarily by a grant from the College’s EMERGE Program for Sustainability and Renewable Energy, encourages high school students interested in STEM to explore engineering and help them harness those curiosities into applicable skill sets.

“Our engineering summer program gives local high school students the opportunity to experience hands-on, project-based learning and use it to solve real-world problems – all while earning college credit,” Luccisano said. “The program has been proven to increase interest and knowledge of STEM-related fields.”

At the commencement of the weeklong program, students were divided into small groups and faced with numerous engineering challenges. All tasks centered on designing cost-effective, solar-thermal conceptions for real-world use.

“I haven’t really gotten to explore engineering much prior to this, but being here has really been fun. I’ve definitely discovered that I want to do this as a career.”
                    - Nicholas Smith, Hagerty High School student 

Utilizing the new engineering labs at Seminole State, students used materials such as wood, coil and acrylic to construct a solar-powered oven and air conditioner, among other things. Hagerty High School senior Gabriel Melendez-Cetto said he enjoyed taking ideas from conceptual stages to a tangible, workable mechanism.

“We’re here building solar panels and taking notes on the sun and solar energy,” Melendez-Cetto said. “It’s good to be able to use engineering to find benefits for future uses, especially with the current state of climate change and poverty.”

Luccisano said that the idea to present program participants with various solar-thermal design challenges stemmed from real problems facing villagers in Luquina Chico, Peru, where a group of Seminole State faculty and staff, including architectural engineering technology Professor Kirk Sawyer, who led the summer program, traveled to research and kick off a service-learning project for engineering students. The team worked to develop a handful of viable solutions to some of the local problems for students to refine and test at Seminole State labs.

Hagerty High School junior Nicholas Smith said that outside trying to find a productive alternative to playing video games all summer, his key reason for attending the program was to get real, hands-on experience with engineering.

“I haven’t really gotten to explore engineering much prior to this, but being here has really been fun,” Smith said. “I’ve definitely discovered that I want to do this as a career.”

(L-R) McKenzie LaPierre, Nicholas Smith and Gabriel Melendez-Cetto were among 20 students to participate in Seminole State's Engineering Technology Summer Program.

Women in STEM

With women often underrepresented in STEM-related careers, the summer program included several girls – such as McKenzie LaPierre, a junior at Lyman High School. She has been building things since the fifth grade and is in Lyman’s Institute for Engineering, where she is prepping for a career in biomedical or biotech engineering.

“There are not a lot of women who have careers in STEM,” LaPierre said. “I think it may seem difficult to some because it’s so math and science heavy, but it’s not completely overkill. There is no reason to feel discouraged for doing this, because if you’re truly interested, you can do just as much as the guys and many times provide perspective that guys can’t.”

After building a solar-powered air conditioner in Seminole State’s program, LaPierre and her group went outside to test their appliance’s functionality in the sun and record results.

“The fun thing about engineering is that things always love to go wrong,” LaPierre said.

On the final day of the program, students presented their designs and what they learned to their peers and Seminole State staff.

“We have always received wonderful feedback on our engineering summer programs,” Luccisano said. “It is a perfect way to help increase awareness and enrollments in STEM-related fields of study. We want to make sure we help get the next generation excited about what can be done through engineering, design and technology.”


The EMERGE Program for Sustainability and Renewable Energy is a three-year, $900,000 grant program funded by the National Science Foundation. The program, which began in 2015, aims to strengthen employability for graduates, add courses and provide certifications in STEM areas, offer a program for dual-enrolled students and increase interest in sustainability and STEM programs among non-science majors.

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