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'Cradle to College': How Georgia State University's STEM Day preps Newton County Schools students for college
GSU Stem Day
Middle school students from various Newton County Schools take time to create flashlights during a class at Georgia State’s annual STEM Day event.

COVINGTON, Ga. — From making flashlights to learning the negative effects of vaping and discovering what goes into the making of lightsabers, Star Wars style, there was something for each of the close to 90 Newton County Schools middle school students at Georgia State University’s (Newton Campus) STEM Day event. 

It’s part of Georgia State’s Cradle to College program — an initiative that began at the university’s Dunwoody campus and now spans across the Clarkston and Newton campuses as well. It seeks to build a pipeline between NCSS students and the university’s programs. 

Program director Deborah Manson calls it an “investment into our potential future students.” 

“It started with elementary school students, and now has middle and hopefully high school students in the near future,” Manson said. “The idea is to make the students in surrounding areas aware of our presence and that college is a real option for them and to show them what college is like and show them that it’s accessible. 

“Some kids do go off to college, but some stay home, and we want those who stay home to know that those [college] options are here.” 

The 90 middle school students shuffled between eight class offerings such as math and physics, biology, environmental science, geology and engineering classes that taught them everything from how static electricity works to solving a Rubik’s Cube and dissecting pig hearts. 

For a day, a mixture of Georgia State professors, faculty and staff and students who are typically engrossed with instructing other college students, helped conduct the classes full of middle schoolers. Manson says the annual STEM Day event is always a popular time for the university. 

“Our faculty gets so excited about this program, and they do a really great job of coming up with programs and classes that the students who come here can relate to,” Manson said. 

She made specific reference to Mike Sakuta, a physical science and chemistry professor who also serves as the the campus science department’s associate chair. 

Sakuta taught his group about the physics involved with light sabers while dressed in Star Wars regalia. He called it a fun way to help whet the appetite of young students intrigued by science. Sakuta has been teaching for 21 years, and with Georgia State since 2008, but none of what he does gets old for him — especially when the younger students show up. 

“I love it,” Sakuta said. “It gets them excited about science. And we definitely need more science students.” 

By now it’s no secret that the Covington/Newton County area is experiencing major growth in the manufacturing and technology industry, and schools like Georgia Piedmont Technical College have already done work to build a connection with NCSS students in hopes of making college a more realistic goal, even for those students who will stay close to home. 

That’s why Manson calls events like GSU’s STEM Day and the Cradle to College initiative necessary, not only for the educational progress of local students but also for the strength of local colleges and universities. 

“It’s really critical,” Manson said. “I know colleges around the country have seen a decline in enrollment right now, and we’re also hearing in the news about a shrinking middle class. And this is the antidote. This is the way we help prevent that. We show students that college is not an ivory tower. It’s not just something reserved for the elite, and it’s not always unaffordable.” 

For that reason, Manson says she and the Georgia State staff want to continue pushing the envelope with this program to see how far and wide it can spread. 

“We have a big vision,” she said. “We want to make sure every student here knows that college is for everybody. In order to do that, we have to make those connections for our students and let them know that we’re here for them, and hopefully we’ll see some of these students as dual enrollment students at GSU in the near future.”