United Way of Bucks County announces first iSTEAMM conference for area youth

The event on May 23, hosted in conjunction with Bucks County Intermediate Unit #22, will help local seventh and eighth graders begin thinking about future careers

By Samantha Bambino

The Times

Meeting of the minds: On May 23, United Way of Bucks County and Bucks County Intermediate Unit #22 are inviting more than 800 area seventh-and eighth-graders to the first iSTEAMM Conference. Source: United Way of Bucks County

When it comes to choosing a potential career path, it’s widely assumed the latter end of high school is prime time to make this critical life decision. On the brink of adulthood, teens must decide to either immediately enter the workforce after graduation, or select a college major, crossing their fingers they made the right choice.

But, according to Marissa Christie, president and CEO of United Way of Bucks County, career preparation doesn’t have to be such a stressful experience. Students just need an earlier start at looking toward the future.

On May 23 at Delaware Valley University, UWBucks and Bucks County Intermediate Unit #22 are inviting more than 800 area seventh and eighth graders to the first iSTEAMM Conference. The free event, presented by PECO, will introduce students to science, technology, engineering, arts, math and manufacturing, and allow them to hear directly from professionals actively working in those fields.

“We’re very excited about this,” said Christie. “This is going to be the biggest countywide conference for students. One of the things that I am most excited about is to be able to bring in other elements that go beyond what a traditional STEM conference would bring to students.”

Unlike a STEM conference, iSTEAMM will incorporate the design, thinking, and problem-solving aspects of the arts, which Christie said are surprisingly vital to many STEM careers. For example, if someone works in an art museum doing restoration, they should have a solid understanding of how a chemical compound works.

“There’s this whole sort of Venn diagram where art and STEM overlap,” she said.

iSTEAMM will also feature information on manufacturing, an industry Christie explained has a severe lack of skilled workers.

“Specifically for our region, we really want to bring in the idea of manufacturing and, in particular, high-tech manufacturing because we know that in our area, that’s going to continue to be an economic driver,” she said.

Despite this being the inaugural year for iSTEAMM, an event of this magnitude has been a long time coming. For several years, UWBucks and the Intermediate Unit hosted an annual #girlSTEM conference, which brought together elementary-aged females from across Bucks County considering a career in STEM. After seeing much success, it only made sense to take things a step further.

“I think it’s fair to say that this has been an evolution for quite a long time,” Christie said. “We’ve always talked about what enhancements do we want to bring, and when do we want to bring them.”

At previous events, students as young as sixth grade and as old as 10th grade were welcome to attend. Christie explained the reasoning behind iSTEAMM’s limited age bracket.

“We really think that seventh and eighth grade is kind of the sweet spot, and that’s in part because so much of the work that young people do in these areas, in particular science and math in school, the learning is cumulative in nature,” she said.

While a 10th-grader could express interest in a STEAMM field, Christie warned that they may find themselves struggling to catch up.

“If you don’t have some of the foundation classes that you would need for that career, it’s a little bit harder to get on track. So from our perspective, what we want to do is start this conversation about career readiness and career paths so that students can plan a little bit better,” she said.

At iSTEAMM, students will attend a panel discussion, where they’ll have an opportunity to hear the experiences of professionals from all fields. This conversation gives attendees a taste of multiple industries, something Christie referred to as a “sampler platter.” During previous conferences, she has witnessed a number of students completely change their mindset after exposure to a field they weren’t formerly aware of.

After, they will rotate through two smaller, interactive workshops based on individualized interests. These will be hosted by volunteer presenters actively pursuing a STEAMM career. Professional men and women interested in presenting must develop and submit a proposal for a one-hour or 45-minute session no later than April 2. Organizers will review all proposals and then select presenters to ensure a wide range of career experiences are represented.

“From our perspective, education for education’s sake is incredibly important, but we also want to be practical about what we’re sharing with students,” Christie said. “We want to make sure that as these students get older, they are getting the kind of jobs that can support themselves and their families. And it starts younger than I think people realize.”

In addition to volunteers, UWBucks and the Intermediate Unit are seeking a handful of sponsors by the first week in March. For schools that have a disproportionate number of students who are free lunch-eligible, sponsor funding would help provide transportation to the conference.

iSTEAMM is open to all school districts and private schools throughout Bucks County, each with its own selection process for determining which students will attend. While some require students to write an essay, others base the decision on a lottery system. Christie encouraged interested students to reach out to their teachers over the coming weeks to see what the protocol is. ••

If you go…

iSTEAMM Conference will take place Thursday, May 23 at Delaware Valley University, 700 E. Butler Ave., Doylestown. Information on sponsorships are available at uwbucks.org/isteamm-sponsorship. Details on becoming a presenter are available at bit.ly/iSTEAMMpresenter.

Samantha Bambino can be reached at sbambino@newspapermediagroup.com