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High school students explore STEM in research at Eastern

Published on June 26, 2023

High school students explore STEM in research at Eastern

TED talks and speakers were designed to promote careers in STEM.

Faculty members Steve Muchiri, back row, right, and Fatma Pakdil, front row, right, led the project.

Associate professor Steve Muchiri leads a class.

Students learned to analyze large data sets.

Fourteen students from E.O. Smith and Windham High Schools delved into data research at Eastern Connecticut State University this past spring in a NASA Space Grant Consortium project led by faculty members Fatma Pakdil and Steve Muchiri.

The project, funded by a NASA grant, was designed not only to teach the students about applying big data analytics to the healthcare system but to interest them in future careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields. 

“At the start, I came in with an interest in STEM, but I wasn’t necessarily passionate about it,” said Savanna Blanchard, an E.O. Smith student who participated. “But my interest in STEM has really been strengthened from this project,” she added.

The students ranged from 9th to 11th grade, and they met at Eastern over four Saturdays in April and May to learn how to analyze big data sets from the National Readmissions Database collected in the Department of Health and Human Services’ Healthcare Cost and Utilization Project. The students analyzed trends in the length of hospital stays and discharges for pneumonia patients.

Pakdil, professor of management, and Muchiri, professor of economics, have used the same database to study hospital discharges of congestive heart care patients. In a recent paper in the International Journal of Healthcare Management, they concluded that a longer initial hospital stay resulted in fewer hospital readmissions.

A research poster detailing the students’ project will be presented in November at the NASA-CT Space Grant Consortium Grants Expo.

The students also watched TED talks by working scientists and engineers, and they heard from five guest speakers. Morgan Hills, the chief executive officer of Bridgeport Hospital and a Windham High School alumnus, talked about how STEM fields apply to the healthcare industry, in providing the technology for surgical risk reduction, for example, or using robotics in hospitals.

Garrett Dancik, professor of computer science at Eastern, talked about using computer science skills in healthcare, particularly in early cancer detection. Ece Pakdil, a senior studying physiology, neurobiology and psychology at the University of Connecticut, answered students’ questions about which college classes to take and how to enhance their profiles for applying to medical school.

Kutay Deniz Atabay, a postdoctoral researcher at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, discussed opportunities for high school students to participate in guided research there.

“I really enjoyed the guest speakers that were brought in. They truly opened up my mind to other STEM fields that I never considered, such as space biology and the combination of computer science and medicine,” said Artemis Willis, an E.O. Smith student.

“Watching a TED talk of a woman engineer having success in STEM was really empowering," said another E.O. Smith student, Anasta Moran. "I feel like this whole experience got me more excited about the STEM field and also more driven to become a part of it.”

E.O. Smith student Luke Moseley said the program deepened his understanding and appreciation for the sciences, particularly data analysis, which was not something that had interested him before.

“I learned about the concept of big data and how to analyze it,” said E.O. Smith student Miriam Shamshad. “We developed hypotheses and research questions and learned how to make our hypotheses concise.”

There is a shortage of high school students who intend to pursue a career in STEM, Muchiri and Pakdil noted in their NASA grant application. Their research program at Eastern aims to help correct that.

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Written by Lucinda Weiss