So Much More than a Center Where STEM Education and Business Thrive

Written by Michelle Adam



They call this place the University City Science Center, but it’s so much more than its name. Established 54 years ago with one building in Philadelphia’s University City, this so-called “center” has now become an urban research, retail and residential park made up of 15 buildings, 363 apartments and 12,000 employees. It drives almost 13 billion in annual economic impact in the greater Philadelphia area and through its businesses has helped create more than 7,400 jobs in Pennsylvania and neighboring states. What’s more is that 442 STEM-related (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) companies have graduated from the center, having benefited from business-incubation spaces, programs, support and research tied to the center’s close relationships to more than 100 colleges and universities in the Philadelphia area, and many more throughout the state, and in Delaware and New Jersey. 

“We are a business-driven nonprofit organization that helps businesses bring products to market,” explained David Clayton, Director of the Center’s FirstHand initiative program. “The establishment of the center 54 years ago was meant to take research out of academia and commercialize technology coming out of universities.”

The Center’s Success Stories

What began as a one-building operation, providing spaces and educational/research support for budding businesses 54 years ago has since been responsible for helping companies like Centocor and Avid Radiopharmaceuticals become corporate giants. Centocor, which was acquired by Johnson & Johnson and spun off as Janssen Biotech, provided Johnson & Johnson its best-selling drugs for rheumatoid arthritis. Avid Radiopharmaceuticals, which began with one employee at the Center, grew to 130 employees and was purchased by Eli Lilly and Company, was the first business to offer promising tests for diagnosing Alzheimer Disease while patients are still alive.

Hundreds of business success stories have been a direct result of the University City Science Center. But they couldn’t have been possible without the center’s role in fostering a strong relationship between research universities and businesses focusing on STEM fields. 

University Research Supports Businesses 

One of the Center’s business-university ventures is the QED Proof-of-Concept Program, which offers business development support for academic researchers developing early-stage life science and healthcare IT technologies. Since its launch in 2009 as the nation’s first multi-institutional proof-of-concept program for the life sciences, QED has screened more than 475 submissions from researchers at 21 partner institutions in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware and has helped more than 80 researchers develop proof-of-concept plans. 

Beyond bringing higher education together with business innovation in STEM fields, the Center continues to grow in its programming, restaurants, galleries, apartments, buildings and much more—so much that it has become a small city of its own. Now, it offers programming to middle schools and high schools that ties earlier education to the “real world” of business.

Reaching Out to Younger Students

This newer venture, FirstHand, began four years ago and provides middle and high school students hands-on early career engagement in STEM fields. The Center works with nine schools—eight middle schools and one high school—in the Philadelphia area who participate in programming from 10 weeks to eight months of the year. While many participating students are African-American (given the location of the Center and schools nearby), the program also serves Hispanic students (which represent seven percent), as well as others who are often underrepresented in STEM fields (and who don’t have adequate access to STEM subject areas and equipment in their own schools). 

FirstHand programs include Polymer Play, DNA Selfie, the Science Center Experience, Project Inquiry, AmpItUp, Taste Test and the FirstHand Teachers Institute. With all of these, students receive guidance from scientists, designers and engineers who are accessible because they’re already a part of the Center’s dynamic community.  

In Polymer Plan, students use technology like laser cutters, power tools and vacuum seals; apply science and math to design real projects; and make their own bio-plastics or recycle plastics into new materials. With DNA Selfie, a girl-focused workshop, students actually take DNA selfies and study their own cells under a microscope. They address engineering design challenges to better understand the structure of the DNA molecule; use laser cutters, power tools and vinyl cutters; and meet female scientists and entrepreneurs.

In addition to these programs, AmpItUp offers students an exploration of the inner workings of batteries and circuits that power our daily activities, and Project Inquiry is an innovate eight-month program for high school sophomores that explores concepts in engineering, design, technology and entrepreneurship. Sophomores learn how to use lab equipment, investigate the design process and solve real world problems using technologies like laser cutters and 3-D printers. They, too, work with professional scientists and entrepreneurs who serve as mentors. 

“These high school students work more independently in teams where companies give students a challenge that they’re currently dealing with (like redesigning a logo or some engineering challenge),” Clayton said. “They work on projects where there are aspects of failure built in. This way students experience education that is less about preparation for something in the future and more about doing real stuff now.”

FirstHand has three teachers who facilitate workshops with 15 companies, and through this process, students learn what the real world of STEM careers is really about. As Clayton explained, many young people think there’s only one career, and you do it or fail when in reality most scientists experience a path with many more sidetracks and pitfalls. “One scientist said, ‘I don’t know if this is Plan B, because I’ve gone so far down the alphabet,’” Clayton explained. 

Summer Programs

Beyond the school year, FirstHand offers summer programs for middle and high school students and for teachers. This summer, the Center will run its second Taste Test program where seventh grade students learn about food and molecular gastronomy in a five-week program. This includes discovering the factors that affect flavor and exploring how senses work together when eating, understanding why each person’s unique genetics influence their tasting experience, and creating foods by turning fruit into spaghetti and the like.

This upcoming summer, the Center’s Teacher Institute will work with more than a dozen teachers in helping them connect careers and 21st-century STEM skills with the classroom. In addition, the Center will pilot a high school intensive camp at students’ request. Details for this program are still in the works.  

Increasing Minorities in STEM

With all of its programming, the Science Center has already impacted the lives of about 600 students in 2016 alone (and more than 400 more who have come to tour the Center). “Roughly 75 percent of students have seen a jump in self confidence and efficacy from this work,” Clayton said. “We have a very high satisfaction in our program because it’s very hands on. We often have to turn down students and partners.”

It’s not surprising that a program like FirstHand (and the Science Center in general) has been so successful. After all, minority and underrepresented students are finally given a chance to experience STEM fields that are normally inaccessible to those who come from poorer school districts. As Clayton pointed out, most programs like robotics or 3-D printing, for example, are offered for a substantial fee or at private or well-funded schools for more well-to-do suburban families and are rarely available to minority students who are poorly represented in STEM fields.     

“I think that there’s a growing trend of programs and increased STEM opportunities for students of diverse backgrounds. But the number of women and minorities pursuing STEM careers is still very low,” Clayton said. “I see us making a dent in this. When we think of the FirstHand, we think of the future being for everyone. We want STEM to be for everyone.” •