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Local high school students create after-school STEM program at Nims Middle School

Maria Hiers

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Published 2:53 p.m ET Jul 6, 2020

For Nims Middle School students, STEM Out is diversifying the future.

In late February in the media center at Nims Middle School, students used Popsicle sticks to smash strawberries in plastic bags. 

The students were participating in “STEM Out," an after-school program working to increase opportunities for African Americans in science, technology, engineering and math.


From left to right: Calvin, 12, Shawnderricka Owens, 13 and Javiyen Watkins, 12, participating in a Nims Middle School STEM Out program in February 2020, Maria Hiers/Special Democrat 

Before schools were closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, the group met every other week.

“This is a biological experiment,” Max Ngnepieba told students. Max, 18, is a senior at Rickards High School. Rickards and Nims are located a couple miles distant on the south side of Tallahassee. 

Middle school students extracted the strawberry DNA by using a solution composed of salt, dish detergent, water and alcohol.

Experimenting with household items keeps the activity “more physically appealing” to students, Max said. The kids then placed the strawberries into plastic baggies and flattened them into pulp with the Popsicle sticks.

The class is an important step toward increasing the number of African American students who pursue STEM activities, Max said.

He started the program in January with two other students: classmate and student School Board member Apurva Srivastava, and Kenneth Greene, a senior at Lawton Chiles High. 

Max drew on his experience at the 2019 State Science and Engineering Fair, where the "lack" of representation for African Americans like himself was "stark," he said. 


High school student Kenneth Greene participates in a STEM Out program at Nims Middle with seventh-grader Jason Henderson in February 2020. Maria Hiers/Special To The Democrat

When students poured the solution into the strawberry slush, strands of DNA coagulated. Students were able to pull them out with the sticks.

“Why did we ask you guys to smush the strawberries?” Max said.


Javiyen Watkins, a seventh-grader at Nims, asked if the group was cross-breeding the berries


The answer: Cells are easier to break down with the help of the solution when the berries are pulped. 

Javiyen, 12, said he one day would like to engineer a "brawberry" — his word for a banana-strawberry hybrid. 

“I could do this at home,” he said. “I like messing around with the different properties of STEM. It’s fun.”

The STEM Out program has generated some district-wide interest. At a February School Board meeting, the trio of high school students introduced their idea to board members about expanding STEM Out to other schools.

The projects are simple enough to be conducted with items found at the Dollar Tree, Max and his friends told the board.

Their initiative was met with enthusiasm.

“I think what you’ve done is amazing,” Darryl Jones said, School Board member for both Nims and Rickards.


Apurva said the program planned to introduce guest speakers who have careers in the STEM field to show students the different career paths available.

“We know that there are other students, other schools that need this program,” Apurva told board members. “These kids are genuinely excited about learning.”

Maria Hiers is a Florida State University student. 

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