The STEM summer program for gifted Caribbean students you’ve probably never heard of

The Caribbean

Posted on August 1, 2020

Over the years, STEM education has been perceived to be lacking in the Caribbean region. However, in recent times an increasing number of organizations are facilitating STEM educational programs. One such organization is the Caribbean Science Foundation (CSF), which aims to “groom the next generation of Caribbean science and engineering leaders.”  

Every year the CSF offers a 4-week programme known as the Student Programme for Innovation in Science and Engineering (SPISE), which is geared towards immersing gifted young minds, (16-17-year-olds) of the Caribbean in STEM subjects.   

Modelled after the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) MITES program, SPISE offers students the chance to explore the wonders of subjects like biochemistry, physics, computer programming, calculus, robotics, electronics, and renewable energy. Participants are also exposed to other subject areas, including entrepreneurship and Caribbean unity. Professor Cardinal Warde, Interim Executive Director of CSF, currently serves as the Faculty Director of both SPISE and MITES.  

Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has restricted the programme to being hosted virtually and not at the usual location at the University of the West Indies Cave Hill Campus in Barbados.   

The programme typically involves lectures on some days taught by professionals established at top universities and in industries worldwide. Other days are filled with engaging hands-on activities, often covering the practical components of the lessons taught. For example, the renewable energy component of electronics requires the conceptualisation, design, and testing of windmill models made from PVC piping. The models are eventually displayed at the programme’s closing ceremony, which is usually attended by sponsors, science educators, and government officials.  

Another activity the students complete is the conceptualisation and design of a functional robot, built for a purpose specified by the subject coordinator. The robots are also displayed at the closing ceremony.  

As a STEM immersion programme, SPISE provides students with the opportunity to be engaged in both life and physical sciences. In Biochemistry, beyond lectures on protein structure and function, and drug development, the practical component has involved a technique called Enzyme-Linked Immunosorbent Assay (ELISA).   

This technique is used to diagnose diseases by either detecting the presence of antigens, which cause infections or by detecting the presence of antibodies produced in response to infections. The aim of this practical is typically to simulate the diagnosis of diseases such as Lyme Disease and HIV.    

In Physics, principles of electricity and magnetism are demonstrated in labs, such as in the determination of whether Ohm’s Law is obeyed in diodes.  

Recognising that entrepreneurship is critical in STEM, SPISE also immerses students in a practical component of the entrepreneurship modules where they are expected to pitch a STEM project at the closing ceremony. Past projects have involved the conceptualisation of cow feed that reduces the production of methane by cows, and an interactive app that identifies places of interest on Caribbean islands.   

In addition to learning about STEM, participants of SPISE have the opportunity to attend workshops and career seminars as part of the programme where they can get advice and assistance with applying to universities and jobs. The programme currently boasts of alumni who went on to attend top universities around the world, including MIT, Harvard University, Princeton University, and Yale University in the United States, and the University of St. Andrews and Bristol University in the United Kingdom.

Two 2017 SPISE students engaged in the design and assembly of their team’s robot as part of the four-week programme. Source: Gerard Porter

While SPISE is a challenging programme that exposes students to university-level courses, the excellent complement of lecturers, teaching assistants, students, and interactive activities make the programme an exciting one for young people of the Caribbean. Also, one notable benefit of the programme is the opportunity for internships in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, and the Caribbean, organised through a partner organisation, the Caribbean Diaspora Association of Scientists, Technologists, and Entrepreneurs (CADSTI).  

A programme of this magnitude may be costly to attend for some students, but the CSF has done extensive sponsorship outreach, ensuring that accepted students are, by and large, funded for the entirety of the programme by organisations such as the Caribbean Development Bank and the Eastern Caribbean Central Bank.  

Rol-J Williams, who was a student of the programme in 2017 best described the SPISE learning environment as an incubator for the most brilliant minds of the Caribbean with students interested in natural science, applied science, technology, engineering and mathematics.   

Gerard Porter, another student of SPISE in 2017, noted that “attending SPISE was like emptying a bucket of cold water on my sleepy face. The rude awakening I experienced was immensely appreciated. At SPISE, I was exposed to challenging courses in physics, calculus, biochemistry, robotics and programming that pushed me beyond my abilities, and made collaboration a necessity.”   

He also highlighted that SPISE not only stimulated him academically but provided life-changing mentorship as well.  

“Beyond coursework, SPISE provided stellar mentorship that helped me to expand my goals with regards to university applications and future career. Suddenly, the Caribbean was no longer my limit. I gained confidence in the belief that I could excel at the highest level in the best institutions around the world. More importantly, I befriended brilliant and driven Caribbean scientists who lifted me to new heights of productivity and ambition and will form a Caribbean network of intellectuals that I shall cherish in the years to come.”   

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