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As a judge for this year’s international Future City Competition, Stephen Paul Canton expected to see amazing science projects created by some of the brightest middle school students in the country. But the presentations by teams of sixth- to eighth-graders absolutely astounded him. “They were brilliant,” Canton says. “They blew my mind. They were talking about sending stations to space in a microgravity environment to expedite the growth of stem cell research. I’m like, ‘What—you are in seventh grade?’”
As the competition’s international alumnus of the year, Canton, a biomedical engineer and medical student, stood on the stage of a Washington, D.C., hotel ballroom to address the young engineering standouts. Each group had used SimCity™ software to design a city of the future, and then built a scale model, wrote a paper, and delivered a presentation.
“I can’t be nervous!” exclaimed Canton to a crowd so large he couldn’t see the last row. “I just watched you present your projects so fluently and with so much poise on a national stage. I’m 15 years older than you, but you inspire me.”
The 26-year-old Pittsburgh native shared how, 15 years ago, he participated in the Pittsburgh Regional Future City competition through Carnegie Science Center, which encouraged his career path. He expects to complete his medical degree with a concentration in bioengineering, biotechnology, and innovation at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine in 2020, and go on to become a trauma surgeon. Going into medicine builds on his year of experience as a biomedical engineer for the Kessler Foundation in West Orange, New Jersey, where he conducted research on robotic exoskeletons, used to improve the mobility of individuals with spinal-cord injuries.
“Future City was such an awesome experience,” he says. “It gave us as students so much autonomy and space to explore. It’s a great competition even if you don’t go into engineering because it builds confidence and creativity at a critical juncture of young peoples’ lives. It taught me how education could translate into cool things that I could do in my career.”
“Future City was such an awesome experience. … It taught me how education could translate into cool things that I could do in my career.” – Stephen Canton
Canton and his teammates from St. Benedict the Moor School in the Hill District worked on a project about a city by the Nile River. His father, Michael Canton, an engineer who had passed on his love of tinkering to his kids, enrolled St. Benedict in the Future City program just two years earlier.
Today, the younger Canton also is an entrepreneur. He and several colleagues are developing an app that would make medical school a more interactive learning experience. They’re launching a start-up for their new learning tool that would create game simulations for different medical procedures. “Our goal is to revolutionize medical education,” Canton explains, by moving it from passive to experiential learning.
Experiential learning is in the DNA of Carnegie Science Center. Every year, the Science Center reaches about 2,000 students through its three science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) competitions: Future City, the Covestro Pittsburgh Regional Science & Engineering Fair, and the Chain Reaction Contraption Contest. For some young people, the competition experience fosters an interest in STEM, while others, like Canton, are motivated to pursue STEM careers.
“It gives students the opportunity to have an in-depth experience of what scientists and engineers do firsthand,” says Lisa Kosick, the Science Center’s education coordinator of STEM competitions. “It helps them develop the all-important skill sets of teamwork, communication, creativity, problem solving, and critical thinking.”
Students who excel in the competitions can earn cash prizes in addition to trophies and medals. Science fair participants vie for about $1 million in cash prizes and college scholarships combined. First-place winners in each science fair division are also eligible for a Carnegie Science Award for their division, a prestigious honor.
Nathaniel Wharton, a science teacher at Cambria Heights High School, has watched many of his students transform themselves by participating in STEM competitions sponsored by the Science Center. “They get excited about their projects,” he says.
“The compliments from the judge are affirming to the kids—that really helps them build confidence.”
Wharton says these experiences especially can make all the difference in the lives of students who are underserved. “When we talk about breaking the cycle of poverty, a science competition really helps,” he says. “It breaks down the forces of marginalization. It shows them a bigger world and new ideas and people they can connect with. You are always one person away from a better opportunity.”
Wharton explains how one former student wasn’t planning to go to college before he entered a science competition in his senior year. After the competition, he applied for and received a full scholarship to Harrisburg University of Science and Technology. “It totally changed the direction of his life,” Wharton says. Students also network with industry professionals and judges. Natalie Nash, a 23-year-old software developer for West Arete based in State College, gave the keynote speech at the March Covestro Pittsburgh Regional Science & Engineering Fair, presented by Carnegie Science Center, where she also served as a judge. “I had a blast talking to the students,” says Nash.
She knows what it’s like to give everything to a project. As a student at Vincentian Academy in McCandless, Nash was a winner at the regional science fair in 2011 and 2012 and went on to win awards at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair for her inventions—a keyboard that allows people who cannot speak to communicate more quickly with others and a smartphone app to help people who cannot see navigate in unfamiliar places.
She received a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering from Penn State University in 2016. During her studies, she spent her summers working as an undergraduate researcher at Carnegie Mellon University.
Nash says she advises high school students applying to college not to worry about having the prior experience for a particular major. “As long as you have the passion to discover, you will make it through.”
As she told this year’s competitors, her experience at the science fairs helped nurture her passion for science. By developing devices that help people with disabilities, she picked up fundamental computer programming skills and affirmed her desire to become an engineer.
“It was a good way to teach myself,” she says. “Having a project you really care about makes learning go so much faster.”
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