July 11, 2019 / All Stories

Increasing access to STEM education

In Asia and around the globe, AbbVie volunteers bring engineering and science education to underserved students – and the need is growing.

Students in Guangzhou, China, participate in the SEEK program’s Packaging Challenge.

Growing STEM knowledge

Optimism. Imagination. Creativity.

You may expect students doing hands-on science and engineering experiments to display these traits, especially when they get to don lab coats and learn from real scientists.

But these aren’t ordinary students, and this isn’t an ordinary classroom. The students are also pediatric patients, and they wear masks to help protect their immune systems. Just outside the classroom is the bustling corridor of Shanghai Children’s Medical Center, where they are undergoing treatment for serious illnesses.

Still, these young patients are fully engaged with the lesson, taking advantage of a chance to spend an afternoon learning, exploring and just being regular kids.

These students are part of AbbVie Foundation’s SEEK (Science, Engineering, Exploration, Knowledge) program, which introduces children ages 5-14 to science and engineering with the goal of filling the gap in STEM education.

A growing program with global reach

While the SEEK program started in the U.S. in 2015, it has grown to reach over 7,700 students and 200 teachers at 150 events around the globe.

SEEK is driven by skilled volunteers, including Kiki Cao, a clinical project assistant in AbbVie China’s R&D group. She has been involved in multiple SEEK classes at the Shanghai Children’s Medical Center.

Today, SEEK has impacted close to 300 children in Asia, primarily in classrooms and hospitals across four major cities in China and in Japan starting in 2016.

Even though the hospitalized children in Shanghai face life-threatening diseases, their desire to learn remains strong.

“When we work with the children to find a better way to solve the problem together, I see their rich imagination and creativity,” Cao says.

Children at the Shanghai Children’s Medical Center experience a variety of SEEK modules, with four total offered around the globe: two science-focused projects for elementary-aged students and two engineering-focused projects for middle school students.

Hands-on education represents a significant aspect of helping children understand science, which includes asking questions and defining problems, along with planning and carrying out investigations, according to the International Journal of STEM Education.

In Tokyo, Japan, SEEK is offered to children living in group homes, providing an opportunity for interactions with adults beyond staff members and also a creative outlet. The staff often spot the children wearing their white lab coats and goggles long after the experiments are over.

As part of the Mystery Box Challenge, students at the Shanghai Children’s Medical Center simulate the science discovery process.

Developed and driven by scientists

Beyond hands-on experiments, students are given resources to continue exploring on their own and understand opportunities for science and engineering careers.

AbbVie created SEEK to address a global challenge – a lack of student access to STEM professionals who serve as mentors and role models, especially for girls, minorities and low-income youth.

AbbVie scientists shaped the SEEK curriculum, with a group of women engineers developing the engineering module and advocating for robust curriculum that ties to AbbVie’s areas of expertise.

A valuable element of SEEK is bringing together students with working scientists and engineers who help them realize that a career in STEM is within reach, says Melissa Walsh, vice president, corporate responsibility & global philanthropy, AbbVie.

“This program gives children a meaningful introduction to science and engineering, with nearly 80 percent of students saying they now have a better understanding of what a scientist does,” Walsh says.

Students in Chengdu, China, take on the Packaging Challenge to create a safe shipping package for a raw egg.

Creating a long-term impact for students

At a different hospital in Guangzhou, China, children took on the SEEK Packaging Challenge, an engineering-focused project where students design a safe shipping package for a raw egg.

It’s critical that the children, who are undergoing treatment for serious diseases like leukemia, continue their education so they can keep up with peers and eventually transition back to school, says Manqing Zhu, a teacher at Guangzhou New Sunshine Hospital School.

By design, the SEEK program facilitates problem-solving and requires children to discuss the challenge at hand and try different approaches.

“If SEEK can become a continued and regular class here, it will have a positive impact on the children’s comprehensive ability,” Zhu says.

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Name: Mary Kathryn Steel
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