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Blog At the Museum

Sparks empowers STEM futures

Late afternoon usually sees the Museum start to clear of guests but, on Wednesdays during the school year, a group of middle schoolers is just getting started.

For the last two years, the Museum of Life and Science’s Sparks Afterschool Program, powered by BioCryst, has brought together students from Durham’s Brogden Middle School for mentorship and STEM enrichment at the Museum. The goal of Sparks is to cultivate curiosity and bring out the inner scientist in participants through a lens of community science. This year, that included a special emphasis on how science addresses societal challenges.

Through 26 weeks of programming, students worked alongside Museum staff and BioCryst employee volunteers to design and carry out four social action projects: do-it-yourself toys for shelter dogs, sensory kits for EL Futuro’s Mental Health Day of Action, toys for Families Moving Forward for children experiencing homelessness, and an Ellerbe Creek clean-up. Students also heat-mapped the temperature of their school campus, discovering where the hottest places were, then came together to discuss how they could rearrange or redesign their campus to cool down high-traffic areas.

Stepheny Hine-Laverack, the Museum’s associate program manager of community and school engagement, said the Sparks curriculum is built to help the students see themselves in science and STEM spaces.

“The goal is for our kids to find the museum to be a place for them, but also a place made by them,” Hine-Laverack said. “I hope they learned about things that are relevant to them and were challenged by new ideas. I hope they played, tested, and experimented with tools that were both familiar and new to them. But most of all, I hope they go home at the end of each Wednesday tired, maybe a little bit sweaty, and happy because they had so much fun with one another.”

The program also invites local professionals to share experiments and explore real-world applications. For example, Dr. Tonya Gerald-Goins, a scientist and associate professor at North Carolina Central University, joined the Sparks kids to discover the impacts of antioxidants, salt, and sugar on the human body.

While still new, the Sparks program has become a steadfast pillar of the Museum’s educational mission.

“Part of what makes the program so special are the relationships that are cultivated by our staff,” Hine-Laverack said. “When the kids get off the bus, they run up to us, give hugs, and ask for us by name, which is very unusual for middle schoolers! That kind of authentic relationship building is hard to maintain, and we are certainly very proud of what we have built with the kids.”

For more information on all of the Museum of Life and Science’s educational programs and opportunities, please visit