Brandywine STEM contest combines elements of science and writing

From left to right: Clara Whitelaw Singer, Annabelle Deady, Anastasia Lauer and Aaleah Smith

From left to right: Clara Whitelaw Singer, Annabelle Deady, Anastasia Lauer and Aaleah Smith were the winners of this year's STEM Writing Contest at Penn State Brandywine. 

Credit: Penn State

MEDIA, Pa. — Penn State Brandywine’s inaugural STEM Options writing contest had all the “elements” needed for success. After all, the theme of the challenge was chemical elements.

For many years, Brandywine has offered a one-day STEM Options career exploration session for seventh-grade girls. Last year, the program added a second day to include ninth-grade girls. This year, the planning committee wanted to develop the campus’ STEM Options programming even further. The writing contest was sponsored by the Verizon Foundation. 

“The writing contest offers the opportunity for us to expand our audience,” explained Professor of Earth Science Laura Guertin. “The career exploration programs depend upon schools bringing the girls to campus and girls being selected by their schools to attend. With the writing contest, girls are allowed to select to participate.”

Girls in grades three through 12 were eligible to participate in the competition and write about their favorite chemical element. They were asked to write a story in whatever style they chose — including science fiction, mystery, adventure, how to, biography or letter to the editor — that highlighted one element from the periodic table and its role in providing solutions to global challenges in areas such as energy, education, agriculture and health.

Guertin said the contest’s theme was based on the United Nations International Year of the Periodic Table of Chemical Elements, which celebrates the 150th anniversary of the first published periodic table. To support the contest, Assistant Librarian Annie Jansen created a library guide with references and information to the periodic table.

Submissions were judged on originality, creative expression, storytelling, use of science terms/grammar, and connection to contest theme/strength of science. Judges were Jansen, Assistant Teaching Professor of Mathematics Samantha Pezzimenti, and Associate Teaching Professor of Chemistry Steven Shuey.

The winners were:

— Aaleah Smith, McClure Elementary School, first place for grades three to five.

— Clara Whitelaw Singer, West Chester, second place for grades three to five.

— Anastasia Lauer, Springton Lake Middle School, first place for grades six to eight.

— Annabelle Deady, Northley Middle School, second place for grades six to eight.

They were invited to campus, along with their immediate families and favorite science teacher, where they toured Brandywine’s STEM laboratories, met with some female undergraduate STEM majors who shared their research projects, and then had a dinner with a keynote speaker who talked about the role of women in the development of the periodic table of elements. The girls also read their award-winning stories.

“The STEM Options story contest provided an outstanding opportunity for girls in our area to combine creative writing with a STEM-themed story,” Shuey said. “The winning submissions clearly demonstrated that they had done some research on a chemical element to enable them to come up with a creative story that incorporated its properties.”

“I was impressed by the confidence of each of these young women to read their stories in front of the crowd,” he added. ”The contest was a good start to a new outlet to give young women in our area exposure to STEM fields as a future career.”

Pezzimenti said she hopes the experience will inspire the participants to pursue a STEM field.

“It was wonderful to see the writing contest winners celebrated for their achievements,” she said. “The girls and their families were so proud, as they should be! They were also exposed to college-level science research through lab tours, presentations from our undergraduate students, and remarks from our keynote speaker.”

Parents were equally pleased with the event, with one saying: “This was such a wonderful night to be a part of. It’s amazing to be able to honor these girls for their hard work and it’s so important that Penn State encourages these young women for their future.”

The STEM Options committee plans to continue the writing contest in 2020.