Thomas Pena recently spent a week in Bloomington, living in the dorms, going to class on a regimented schedule, and having little communication with his parents.
Sounds fairly par for the course for any college student. But Pena attends Tri-West Middle School, and is only 11.
Pena was one of a very select 70 middle schoolers selected to participate in the state’s STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) Initiative, which was held for two weeks at Indiana University at Bloomington.
The nationwide initiative is designed to get middle school students more involved and excited about entering the fields of science and technology.
There, students delve into numerous activities, live as college students, and get a crash course on what post-secondary education would be like, all with a science theme.
“(Thomas) was really excited when we went to pick him up,” said David Pena, his father. “He said his favorite part of the camp was making an underwater robot and that it really just showed him the use of a lot of his classroom work in the real world, how it can help to get a job. It added to his passion for science.”
The process to get into the program was wide ranging. Thomas’ mother, Marney, said it wasn’t just a routine entrance exam and hoping to get in. There were about 1,000 children — all future seventh- and eighth-graders — who turned in applications.
From there, they had to write essays and provide an educational history. But Marney said that to her son, it was completely worth it.
“They got to build rockets and whoever’s went the furthest would win,” she explained of one of the projects. “He dissected a squid. They went down to some caves (to explore). They worked in programming and designing video games, so for a kid as attached to his Xbox as he is, it’s a really cool place to be. He has never been away from home this long, but he just had a blast.”
Marney said Thomas was invigorated by being around children with the same interests. She said the program typically tries to split the number of students evenly between males and females. She said that the STEM program furthered not only his interest in science, but in school for the upcoming year as well.
“He loved the program, especially since he was with a lot of kids like him,” she explained. “It’s cool for him to be involved in group work with kids that are like him. I think what they try to do is take the concepts that you learn about in the classroom and show the kids how it applies in the real world. I think it might help because he will be able to see why he’s learning what he’s learning and how it’s going to apply later on.
“I think this just expanded his world, meeting all these kids all over the state. The world’s a big place, and it sounds like he’s going to keep a lot of these friends (he made).”
But David said that being around the Cream and Crimson of Indiana didn’t sway his young, but thought-out college plans.
“He actually said that he’s really looking forward to becoming an engineer, and he’s already expressed interest in Purdue (University),” he added. “This really showed him what a college lifestyle would be like. He was in his dorm, had a roommate, schedule, and it really helped him understand what going to college would be like.”
For more information about the STEM program, visit the website at stem.indiana.edu/aboutstem/.