New Burroughs Wellcome Fund grant to boost Elon Explorers STEM program for middle schoolers

The three-year. $147,570 grant will help the program to further student engagement and STEM enrichment.

With a return to in-person student enrichment after having the program virtually last summer, Elon Explorers is looking to continue making STEM interesting and accessible for middle schoolers next summer. The program will now have significant backing having received funding from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund.

Elon Explorers was one of the Student STEM Enrichment Programs (SSEP) in North Carolina to have received a grant of $147,570 over three years.

“We’re thrilled to have three years. We now have funding for multiple years which means we can build relationships, make it robust, create the programs we want and really establish the model that we have,” said Mark Enfield, associate professor of education. 

File photo showing an Elon Explorer camper conducting an experiment during the 2019 session. (Photo by Mark Enfield)

Elon Explorers is a summer program that provides middle school students in the Alamance Burlington School System (ABSS) with free informal STEM learning experiences. The grant will allow for Elon to deepen its partnership with ABSS, according to Associate Professor of Biology Jen Hamel, who leads the program with Enfield.

Middle school is a critical time during which students decide how they feel about STEM. Engaging students with hands-on science practice can help them stay enthusiastic about science.

The Elon Explorers program hopes to foster this enthusiasm around STEM as students transition into high school, showing students that science is about collaboration, understanding the world and asking questions.

“A lot of kids begin middle school thinking, ‘STEM is cool and fun,’ and they leave middle school thinking, ‘I don’t want to do that anymore,’” Hamel said. “In the early side of middle school, students are really still connected with being curious and open and full of wonder. We want to get them outside and practicing science so that they keep or reconnect with that sense of wonder.”

For the upcoming summer, the Elon Explorers have planned to accept 24 middle schoolers for the one-week program. Interested students will have to write a 200-word short essay displaying their interest in STEM and what they hope to take away from the experience.

Students participating in Elon Explorers in 2019.

This summer’s topic will be insect ecology, much to Hamel’s delight. “Since I study bugs, that makes me really happy. You can basically study any kind of science with bugs.”

Enfield said he wants Elon Explorers to be an opportunity for students who thrive in the realm of STEM and show a student who may struggle in other areas that “there is a seat for them at the table.”

“We want to get kids who are enthusiastic about science and not only the ones who are getting straight A’s in all of their classes,” Enfield said. “Part of the design of the program is to hopefully encourage and support students in STEM during their middle school years and for them to think, ‘This is something I can do and I can be good at school.’”

Both Enfield and Hamel, along with two ABSS teachers and two undergraduate counselors will be the mentors for the 24 students during the summers. Enfield said that the timing of the Elon Explorers program also aligned with the Elon Academy to have some of the academy scholars share their experiences with the Explorer students.

The Burroughs Wellcome Fund was founded in 1955, and in that time has financially supported research in a variety of fields and STEM education efforts. With this SSEP grant, the Wellcome Fund has continued its mission of strengthening society and improving human health through education.

“The Wellcome Fund has a long, great history of funding this kind of programming,” Hamel said. “We’re so grateful that we’ve got the resources and stability to plan out three years of programming and make it really rich.”