Lift Off

Olivia Schiermeyer led fifth graders in a countdown as she manned a miniature rocket launcher at the “3…2…1 Lift Off” station. Several covered their ears in anticipation of the blast.

“W-h-o-a-h! That’s so cool!” shouted one student as the paper rocket soared across the Lee Hill Elementary School gymnasium.

“It’s great seeing how excited they get when it’s time to launch their rockets,” said Schiermeyer, a University of Mary Washington sophomore biology major, as the next group of amateur rocket designers rushed toward her for their turn.

On the other side of the gym, sophomore Erica Falvey quizzed another group of students who had gathered close to see if they could pass an electrical current through an orange.

“Do you want to try and pass electrical currents through each other?” Falvey asked. Right on cue, a computer screen lit up, indicating conductivity.

Falvey and Schiermeyer transformed the Spotsylvania County school into a high-tech science lab to encourage budding young scientists. The pair planned and hosted the STEM Day – science, technology, engineering and math – as part of their participation in UMW’s Honors Program.

Falvey and Schiermeyer, along with Professor of Chemistry and Honors Program Director Kelli Slunt and UMW student volunteers, spent their day putting on scientific demonstrations on chemical reactions, building circuits, engineering and material conductivity at different stations for more than 300 third- to fifth-grade students. Students also marveled over a 3D-printer demonstration by George Meadows, professor of education.

Darnella Cunningham, principal of Lee Hill Elementary school, said STEM Day created an opportunity for her kids to review important math and science concepts, all while having fun.

“The kids loved it. The general reception was overwhelmingly positive,” said Cunningham. “We’re broadening their experiences and interests.”

Falvey and Schiermeyer also wanted to show the wide opportunities that are available to anyone who wants to study STEM.

“We were really focused on getting girls interested in STEM-related careers because they are often deterred from this path in elementary school,” said Schiermeyer. “I hope they learned that the areas of STEM can be fun and are accessible for both boys and girls.”

Falvey and Schiermeyer’s months of planning for STEM Day paid off when the UMW students got to see how much their visit meant to the elementary school students.

“I definitely learned that the amount of planning that goes into any event is deceiving, and that there is a ton of communication necessary,” said Falvey.

Communications skills are just one of the benefits that service-learning projects provide to honors students, according to Slunt. In their sophomore year, honors students are required to participate in service learning projects which allow students to help the community while gaining important skills in communication and planning.

“The Honors Program requires service learning in order to demonstrate the importance of assisting others as part of their own intellectual and ethical development,” said Slunt.

The Honors Program at UMW was created in 2012 as another way for students to enhance their learning experience and further their academic opportunities. Schiermeyer and Falvey are among 125 students who are in the program.

Other honors service-learning projects have involved grant writing for Habitat for Humanity, developing a history for a local church and participating with an after school science enrichment program.

Incoming freshmen are chosen for the Honors Program based on their high school GPA, test scores and the rigorousness of their high school curriculum. Honors students have multiple requirements while in the program, including maintaining a high GPA, attending co-curricular events throughout the year and taking a certain number of honors-designated classes each semester.

While the honors program is only in its second year, Slunt is optimistic about the new program and sees growth and expansion in the future.

“My hope is that the number of course offerings and opportunities for students will expand,” Slunt said. “It’ll be neat to see where it goes in the next couple of years.”


  1. Anna Billingsley says:

    Wonderful story, Julia!

  2. Patti Kemp says:

    Very exciting. I wish I had these opportunities both as a UMW student and as the elementary students who benefited from their work. My compliments to Olivia and Erica who probably had as much fun as their students.
    I hope to see coverage in the Free Lance Star and UMW eNews.

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