Ashayla Freeman, Opt4STEM Energy Academy participant 2016

We are pleased to have Guest Blogger Ashayla Freeman provide this blog about her experience at the Opt4Stem Energy Academy this summer. The program brought together high school students from Von Steuben High School in Chicago and gave them an energy experience they will never forget!  NEED proudly partnered with Opt4STEM to support the Energy Academy with curriculum, training, and a wind and energy efficiency session with NEED trainer and energy manager James Brown of Saratoga Springs, New York. Opt4STEM is a STEM partnership between Exelon, Von Steuben High School, and Illinois Institute of Technology to provide high school students with the foundation to succeed in STEM degrees at four-year research universities. For more information about Opt4STEM, go to

My experience with the Opt4STEM Energy Academy this summer has been absolutely phenomenal. Science has never been my favorite subject. I’ve always found it quite intimidating and was hesitant to apply when I heard about the Energy Academy, but thanks to my English teacher, Ms.Teref, being so persistent and encouraging, I decided to give it a go. The application process was very simple and straightforward with questions like, “Why do you want to join OPT4STEM?” and “Why should you be selected for the program?”.

Fast forward to the first day of the program. All of the students were put into groups and we began with a simple workshop as an icebreaker. The first activity we partook in was “Getting the Oil Out” where we worked together to connect a pipeline (straws) which we used to suck out “oil” (chocolate syrup) from a cup. The goal of this activity was to establish teamwork and give us insight into how difficult it is to extract oil from the earth. In addition to this activity, we built a generator and learned about fracking. All in one day! So you could only imagine what the other 9 days were like!


Opt4STEM Energy Academy students

My favorite part would definitely have to be when we went out on field trips. The first field trip that comes to mind would have to be our trip to ComEd Rockford Training Center, especially meeting Socrates, a technician there. Meeting Socrates reminds me why I love the staff involved in Opt4STEM and the staff we met everywhere in general. Everyone was so friendly and easy to communicate with. You could ask them almost anything, as long as it’s appropriate of course, and they would answer to the best of their ability – which is something I loved!

We also did very exclusive things, including meeting the CEO of Exelon. So basically me, a 15-year-old girl, who is about to start her sophomore year in high school, was having lunch and chatting with the head of one of the world’s biggest energy companies. Surprisingly no one fangirled too much and we were given free rein to ask him whatever we liked. I really appreciated that the teachers didn’t dominate the conversation, you could tell everything was truly for the kids.

After experiencing all of this, I think that’s what makes Opt4STEM so different from other science programs. It’s not too classroom or textbook orientated and everything is hands on.  At any moment you have freedom to ask questions and everything is translated to simple form so that you can understand. Overall, Opt4STEM was very cool; it wasn’t what I expected at all. I thought I needed all this prior knowledge and everything would be over my head, but in reality I felt like I spent two weeks hanging out with my teachers/friends and we just so happened to learn a lot about science and energy.