Three middle school students work with astronomy software on a large screen

CAC Provides STEAM-Based Learning Opportunities for Area Youth


After more than a year of schooling over computers, Buffalo-area middle school students involved in the Community Academic Center’s summer program finally had a chance to learn in person.

And they loved it.

“The engagement of the students has been incredibly high,” said Jennifer Serniuk, program director for the CAC. “The students have been trapped on Zoom through the pandemic, so they were really looking forward to being able to be with other students, staff, and teachers.”

The middle schoolers were on the Buffalo State College campus in early August as part of the CAC’s Global Youth Leaders Program.* Through the program, local high school students focus on service to Buffalo’s East and West Side communities, developing college and career readiness, and fostering civic growth and knowledge of social justice.

“The point of the program is to have them be able to envision themselves in these fields in the future. If they do the work, and they have an interest, they can do it. That’s what they need to hear.”

- Jennifer Serniuk, M.M., Program Director, Buffalo State College Community Academic Center

The idea is to expose interested students at a young age to science, technology, engineering, arts, and math (STEAM).

In June, a group of Buffalo State students and recent alumni laid out activities for the high school students, who in turn came up with STEAM-based activities on campus for the middle schoolers.The middle school students come from a wide variety of backgrounds; many have emigrated from Burma, Sudan, or Iraq.

“The point of the program is to have them be able to envision themselves in these fields in the future,” Serniuk said. “So, it’s really a pipeline that we’re trying to create through elementary school, through college.”

The middle school students took part in a number of STEAM activities during the week, including computer coding, scientific investigation, and using astronomy software from the Whitworth Ferguson Planetarium. They also took part in music and dance lessons.

Christopher Shively, associate professor in the Elementary Education, Literacy, and Educational Leadership Department, teaches the Buffalo State students involved with the program and runs the science activities for the middle school students. He and his students have been working with the middle schoolers since January, over Zoom. He said being able to work with the younger students in person was refreshing.

“It’s just a human thing,” he said. “Humans like to be in the presence of humans. That’s why we all grew the way that we did.”

Three guest speakers were also brought in, Serniuk said: Donald Schmitter, lecturer in Buffalo State’s Hospitality and Tourism Department; John C. Panepinto, a professor from the University at Buffalo’s Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences; and Emmanuel Nsengiyumva, a chemical engineering Ph.D. candidate at UB.

“It was great because it was for all ages of students,” she said. “College students, high school students, and the STEAM students—they all got something out of the presentations, because they’re all looking at these fields from different levels, either as potential careers or just learning more about the subjects in general.”

In the past, CAC programs were held at the center’s satellite office on Grant Street. Because of COVID, the CAC is now holding its programming on campus, which gives the students an opportunity to be on a college campus and learn from a variety of faculty members.

“We just have wonderful faculty input from Buffalo State College,” Serniuk said. “We’re really proud of that. They’re providing opportunities that students may not get in their own schools.”

Serniuk said it’s important to provide an opportunity for the middle schoolers to learn about STEAM fields, and to gain confidence that they can make careers work in those fields.

“If they do the work, and they have an interest, they can do it,” she said. “That’s what they need to hear. They need to see people who look like them in these fields, and they need to see all of the possibilities.”

*CAC youth programming for 2020–2021 was funded by the Cullen Foundation with additional support from M&T Bank.

Photos by Bruce Fox, campus photographer.