PTC Therapeutics is sponsoring a Students 2 Science STEM education initiative at Passaic Academy for Science and Engineering in Passaic, New Jersey to make a difference in the lives of children who have high learning potential but limited access to STEM education resources.

Miss Sammy shows the kids how to mix and color varyingly dense cupfuls of sugar water. So far, the experiment is working, even though the students are at home, due to COVID-19 precautions, and their lab (or “V Lab” for “virtual”) is happening via Google Meet. Later on, Emanuel, grade 6 – who dreams of being an engineer or an astronaut, and who’s fascinated by gravity, will report that doing this particular experiment was really fun.

But now comes the tricky part: You have to SLOWLY pour one color liquid onto the next. It has to be so slow that the colors don’t run into each other – and with a victory that’s a pseudo-Mark Rothko color field abstract painting in a plastic cup, the students have learned how different liquid density concentrations can form liquid silos. Red on yellow. Green on blue. Etc.

Dhruvi, grade 7 – who wants to be a doctor and who also loves art, music and math in addition to science, says that through this experiment she can see how all these areas of study are interconnected. She says she enjoys the V labs because the scientists have an uplifting tone of voice and it often feels as if they’re telling a story rather than teaching a lesson.

“The energy to learn comes from your curiosity,” she says. And then, with thoughtfulness, she compares learning to watering a horse: “You’re the horse and the teacher is taking you to the water,’ Dhruvi explains. “But you have to drink.”

Real Science for Future Scientists

“About 80% of my students speak another first language besides English. Then science is a third language.” – Sue-Anne Alonso, PASE Middle School Teacher

If this were any other science class, the experiment might result in a few ‘oohs’ and ‘ahs’ from Ms. Sue-Anne Alonso’s middle school students. But this is a Passaic Academy for Science and Engineering (PASE) and Students 2 Science joint production. “Every lab has a little segment on career paths,” Alonso explains. Dhruvi concurs. She can see “pathways” to her future.

These learning modules aren’t just about pretty colors and sugar. The experiments demonstrate advanced concepts in science (like water filtration, PH levels, flocculation and so on). What can you do with that in life? The curriculum introduces the concept of sludge blanket clarifiers in water treatment systems prompting student queries: “Using science to clean water? That’s a job?”

Paul Winslow is the president and co-founder of Students 2 Science, an 11-year-old non-profit organization that works to inspire, motivate and educate children in the sciences. By educating students and helping them achieve higher educational outcomes, they raise their lifelong earning potential, he says. This, in turn, serves the companies – like PTC – that sponsor the V Labs with Miss Sammy and other Students 2 Science demonstrators because it helps populate a future pool of technically-competent talent. With this talent pool well-stocked, companies are poised to recruit and retain a diversified workforce.

PTC is counting on this to work. When Chief Culture and Community Officer Martin Rexroad started partnering us with the educators at PASE, he was moved by the potential of the students he met. Over the years, he has enjoyed supporting and witnessing the creation of PASE’s standalone public education institution for smart kids with big STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) potential. “I am truly proud PTC lent a small hand in turning this vision into a reality,” he says, adding that, as kids, the students can visit PTC labs and watch the science, but that one day they’ll be part of our team and actually do the science themselves.

“New Jersey needs future drug discovery scientists, future doctors, future top professionals,” Rexroad explains. “Today we should invest in every child, regardless of where they grow up.”

Benefits Now and Then

For her part, Alonso thinks ahead to her students’ futures when teaching: “For every lesson, I ask myself, ‘What’s the science skill here?’ Then I ask, ‘What’s the life skill?’

”About 80% of my students speak another first language besides English,” she explains. “Then science is a third language.”

And they want to speak that language. Raindy, grade 8 – who thinks about becoming a computer programmer and a philanthropist, hopes the labs expand to include experiments like “taking apart a car engine.” Others are excited about building computers, dissecting frogs, and the seemingly simple aerodynamics of the time-honored egg drop. (For your information, this writer suggested to them that gelatin might be a good egg drop insulator, but Naiara, grade 7 – who will likely build a spaceship someday, explained how even the most colorful Jell-O was no match for the force of gravity.)

The students also talk about how learning the science of, for instance, water filtration can help the world, not just the world of Passaic, New Jersey. Zy’Quan believes he will be able to alleviate the negative effects of climate change. “Learning this can help us in the future,” he says. “We can start now, as kids.”

Alonso is seeing the benefits of STEM education in two ways: The students are growing their ambitions for the future, but they’re also engaged today. They get out of bed in the morning and rush to science class. Their “soft” skills, like critical thinking and confident communication, are honing.

While the V labs are in progress, the chat pane on Google Meet is alive and well – almost more fun to watch than the experiment itself. The students are comfortable using the chat because they text on smartphones every day. They type into chat their abundant ideas and questions, and this helps reduce interruption and encourage engagement. One student, Julissa, confesses, “We get even more interactive with each other,” indicating the social benefits of virtual science, which are quite possibly the highlight of remote learning for these young people.

And then there’s Austin – the picture of a remote-learning-due-to-COVID student, circa 2020. He’s practically swallowed up by his headphones and sitting low in a desk chair, safe at home in his bedroom haven. “Chat is especially good for shy kids,” says this future business leader who plans to use science to “help people.”

More Science to Students

For its part, Students 2 Science is glad to pilot middle school V labs with Alonso and her engaged bunch in Passaic. “PASE runs a cohesive and well-run program,” says Winslow. “A lot of districts would love to be where PASE already is.”

In light of continued support from PTC for the 2021-2022 school year, PASE Principal Johanna Ross adds:

Together, we will be able to continue to shape the next generation of leaders; and thanks to the generous financial and time commitment from PTC, we will be able to continue to work with S2S and their team to offer excellent opportunities to our students. The future is in science and we are beyond grateful for the opportunity to work with like-minded innovators in the field.

PTC agrees. Nurturing future scientists has become a tentpole of our company’s Corporate Social Responsibility initiative, as we grow to develop more rare disease treatments and bring moments to patients with high unmet medical need. The bottom line is this: We need smart, dedicated, compassionate people – like Julissa and Emanuel and Raindy and others – on the side of patients with rare diseases. We’ll need them to build and solve and invent and innovate. And right now – as kids, we need them to dream, believe, learn and succeed.

Today’s sugar water artist could be tomorrow’s super healer.