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Full STEAM Ahead

Center won’t have formal office space

That’s the thing about Elephant Toothpaste — it always makes an entrance.

“Huh, what do you think about that?” Dr. Frederic Bertley asked, while those gathered in the school cafeteria at Mountaineer Middle broke into whoops and applause.

“Don’t try this at home,” he said.

“Well, do try this at home, but just not at this volume, because it is kind of messy.”

Bertley, an immunologist by training whose work in vaccines and preventive medicine has taken him from the Canadian Arctic to Sudan, was having some fun on this afternoon at the school high atop Morgantown on Price Street.

The aforementioned “elephant toothpaste” is a popular experiment on chemical catalysis, using some pretty common ingredients.

Take ordinary tap water, dry yeast, liquid dish soap, food coloring and hydrogen peroxide.

Have your lab assistants — which, on this day, included West Virginia Superintendent of Schools Clayton Burch and WVU Mountaineer mascot Colson Glover — swirl it all together.

Then watch, for the lab-induced slapstick.

The foamy concoction that shot out of those big beakers in tube-shape was wide enough, and thick enough, for an elephant’s toothbrush, if there were such a thing.

What was really bursting forth Thursday was a new avenue in learning for the Mountain State.

It was the launch of Technical Assistance Center for Science, Technical, Engineering Arts and Mathematics, a multisyllabic, multidisciplinary experiment in intellect known as, STEAM-TAC for short.

The center won’t have fixed, formal office space at the school in Morgantown.

What it will have, however, is a fleet of tricked-out vans, driven by committed educators, tooling in the direction of your neighborhood middle school, to advance the mission of STEAM education for students in grades 6-8 beginning next year.

All will operate under the intellectual umbrella of the state Department of Education, WVU and the West Virginia Public Education Collaborative.

Mountaineer Middle was tapped as the place to make the announcement.

“It’s full steam ahead for West Virginia,” its inaugural program manager Jennifer Schwertfeger said, enjoying the wordplay.

STEAM TAC’s educators will help get those interactive lesson plans on aerodynamics, solar energy and everything else going for 2022, added Schwertfeger, herself a former classroom teacher.

Columbus, Ohio-based Center of Science and Industry helped with the proceedings Thursday.

Known as “COSI,” the popular hands-on museum and learning lab has captivated central Ohio kids and students of all ages from across the region for more than 50 years.

COSI is why Bertley came trucking into town with his Elephant Toothpaste.

He’s the director of the place.

Thursday, he also helped hand out close to 1,200 “learning lunchboxes” from the center, containing experiments and other plans on how to construct a rudimentary lava lamp, among other efforts.

It’s that joy of the effort, he said: The work, the discovery, the reward.

When he wasn’t doing his field work across the globe, he was in front of the classroom at Harvard and other higher-learning bastions, where he was known by legions of students as “Dr. B.”

Dr. B gave West Virginia’s STEAM effort an A on Thursday.

“STEAM education isn’t about white lab coats and math,” he said.

“It’s about music and creativity and the things you do to get kids engaged and excited about learning. And your state is right there.”

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