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Sumter's Hillcrest Middle 'citizen scientists' recognized nationally for using tech to address youth suicide

Hillcrest Middle School STEM Club is one of 100 national winners in Samsung contest

BY BRUCE MILLS
bruce@theitem.com
Posted 1/24/20

DALZELL - Take middle schoolers' innate curiosity, mix in the latest technology and add proper teacher instruction, and they can impact the world or at least their own corner of it.

That's what the 70-member STEM Club at Hillcrest Middle School …

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Sumter's Hillcrest Middle 'citizen scientists' recognized nationally for using tech to address youth suicide

Hillcrest Middle School STEM Club is one of 100 national winners in Samsung contest

Posted

DALZELL - Take middle schoolers' innate curiosity, mix in the latest technology and add proper teacher instruction, and they can impact the world or at least their own corner of it.

That's what the 70-member STEM Club at Hillcrest Middle School is doing with an already-state-award-winning project aimed at deterring suicidal ideas and thoughts among their peers.

STEM is interdisciplinary teaching in science, technology, engineering and math, and Hillcrest's club teachers and student members discussed this week how students are using the most up-to-date tech gadgets to address the growing prevalence of suicide among kids.

According to a 2019 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide rates for students 10 to 14 in the U.S. increased 25% based on data from 1999 to 2016. In South Carolina for that timeframe, the growth rate was 38%, the second-highest of any of the 50 states, according to Hillcrest sixth-grade science teacher and STEM coordinator Richard Phillips.

Suicide is now the No. 1 cause of death for students in the age category, the CDC report said.

In Hillcrest's project - recently recognized as one of 100 winners nationally in the 10th-annual Samsung Solve for Tomorrow Contest - the students are using video technology and QR coding to create 60-second peer-to-peer positive messages to counter warning signs for suicide in their age group.

In the competition, which has a $3 million total prize package, the 100 initial state winners came from a pool of more than 2,000 entries from middle and high schools. That means Hillcrest's project-proposal entry ranked in the top 5% nationally.

For making it through that competitive phase, all 100 schools will each receive $15,000 in technology and classroom materials from the tech manufacturer. All submitted research proposals in the contest must attempt to solve a community challenge.

THE PROJECT

The STEM Club's research project will assess students' knowledge of the warning signs of suicide and effective coping mechanisms with pre- and post-project surveys, Phillips said.

Club members put the initial survey online this week for baseline data collection.

Next, a school bulletin board will be filled with information sheets on various stressors that middle-schoolers face, each with QR codes displayed that link to the 60-second peer-to-peer video messages. (Club members and other STEM-elective students are creating their own QR codes and the video messages in the project.)

Students will take a stressor topic from the bulletin board, scan the QR code with their smartphone and then have access to the associated video, they said.

Bulletin board stressors will be divided into various categories, such as homework help, military family assistance and those linked to suicidal thoughts. But those will be listed with a different name to protect students' privacy.

Later, a post-project survey will determine if the student body learned about effective suicide prevention mechanisms.

Club members know that even discussing the topic of suicide is traditionally frowned upon, but because it's an increasing challenge for youth, the problem needs to be addressed, and there has been a trend to erase the stigma around suicide.

Phillips said the students know they're not mental health professionals, but the project's goals are to inspire a new generation.

"As citizen scientists and as community members, then what can we do and what difference can we make," Phillips said, "to have a positive effect on this and maybe have these numbers decrease?"

The project's name is Code For Change, and students have been divided into seven groups to carry out functions. Those groups include video scripts, video production, graphic design, technology and survey/data collection, among others.

On Wednesday, technology group members Hunter Dickerson and Jack Atkinson discussed that making QR codes from the internet is relatively easy.

"On the more modern internet, it's easier to make them now," Atkinson, an eighth-grader, said. "You can mainly just go onto Google and search, 'How to make QR codes,' and you will have all these links pop up."

Everyone involved thinks Project Code For Change will be successful on different levels.

"The project is a win-win," their STEM coordinator, Phillips, said. "Students take a research project from the idea stage to the prototype, and if the club helps one kid in the area of suicide prevention, it's worth it."

NEXT CONTEST STAGES

In the current project phase, the STEM Club - which consists of sixth- through eighth-graders - will complete and submit a 3-minute video detailing all aspects of their research project to Samsung by Feb. 20, club members said. Then, based on the videos, Samsung will select 20 finalists in early March. Those finalists will qualify for a total of $50,000 in prize money from the manufacturer.

Student representatives from all 20 finalists will go to New York to present before a panel of judges. Five final projects will be selected, and those winners' prize packages will increase to $100,000, according to project details.

Phillips has been leading STEM and science research projects at Hillcrest for a few years now and said prize packages are a big help in the students' work.

The school's overall winnings from the Samsung contest will potentially fund Lego League Robotics Kits, 3-D printers, tablets, STEM labs and equipment for other possible areas of STEM study.

"Every project hopefully, if done well, leads to the next project and the next project," Phillips said, "and all that helps to build the STEM program here."