Among the disruptions to normal life caused by COVID-19 is the tradition of parents sending their children to summer camp.

This year, they can send them to cyber camp.

Youngsters can continue the online education they started during the school year through a program offered by Citizen Science Lab, a nonprofit based in Pittsburgh’s Hill District neighborhood, that opened a South Hills location in 2019.

Cyber Summer Camp features a variety of topics, from chemistry to electronics to the subject matter of “Microbes Around Us.” Students are provided with kits for science projects and experiments, and educators serve as guides by way of video.

“That’s what we’re here to do,” former Upper St. Clair resident Andre Samuel said. “We’re here to make science fun and accessible. And it has to continue, whether we can do it in person or not.”

Samuel is president and chief executive officer of Citizen Science Lab, the first organization in the Pittsburgh region focusing on science, technology, engineering and mathematics to be founded and led by a Black scientist.When he was working on his doctorate in biology at Duquesne University, Samuel took note of the relative scarcity of African Americans in the area holding degrees in science-related disciplines. At the university, he started SIGMA – Science, Innovation, Growth, Mentorship, Achievement – to enhance interest in such subjects among minority high school students.

From that experience came the impetus for Citizen Science Lab.

“I’d already had this mindset that I wanted to do something to change the perception of Blacks and their perception of science,” Samuel said. “I often thought that I was going to wait until after I finished by doctorate to do it, and then I felt like there was an opportunity at Duquesne.

“I saw that there were a lot of resources. I saw that Duquesne was right next to the Hill District and right in the heart of Downtown,” he continued. “And I felt like, this university is sitting right here. Let’s do some outreach.”

Samuel, who lived in the Hill District when he first arrived in Pittsburgh and was familiar with the neighborhood’s needs, started asking his mentors and faculty members about how to go about achieving his goal.

“They were all extremely supportive. They told me whom I should speak to. They got me together with people to help put a business plan together. The dean of my school provided funding for lunch for the students,” he recalled. “That was the birth, I guess you can say, of the Citizen Science Lab.”

As a program of Urban Innovation21, a public-private partnership that boosts regional economic development, the lab opened its doors in 2015. Three years later, earlier than originally anticipated, Samuel’s project became its own independent organization.

“We were really lucky to be embraced by the community the way that I hoped we would be,” he said.

In the long term, his vision is to expand the Citizen Science Lab to other locations, even nationally, and the South Hills was the first choice.

“We did some market research, and interestingly enough, we found that a lot of suburban areas wanted something like this,” he reported.

The lab is in the Landmark Building, 1699 Washington Road, Bethel Park, near both the Mt. Lebanon and Upper St. Clair lines.

“This area is part of my kids’ growing up,” Samuel said. “I felt like, hey, this is a great opportunity to try it here, in a neighborhood I was familiar with and knew.”

The new location, which takes up an entire floor, provides plenty of space for numerous types of state-of-the-art educational opportunities.

“Everything that we have here is industry-grade,” Samuel said. “So the same equipment that we use in academia and institutions, we use here.”

Under normal circumstances, course offerings include such cerebral subjects as molecular biology and genetics, chemistry, biochemistry, environmental sustainability, botany and physics. Then there’s zoology, for which Samuel is eminently prepared.

“I try to make sure we keep a number of critters handy,” he said. “We do this to teach the kids about the environment, about the animals and how they’re affected by us, and also to help to dispel a lot of myths that are associated with them.”

An example is a sizable chameleon with a visage that prompted his being named Mr. Grumpy Wilson, and in Samuel’s view, getting to know a lizard like that can help youngsters overcome fears they may have of certain creatures.

A substantial portion of funding for the Citizen Science Lab comes from the Richard King Mellon Foundation, which has invested in the competitive future and quality of life in Southwestern Pennsylvania since 1947. In June, the foundation provided the lab with a grant of $125,000.

The support of individuals and families helps, too, and one of the goals of the new suburban location is to help call the lab’s mission to a wider audience of potential donors.

In response to COVID-19 somewhat limiting the ability to raise money through donations, the lab is offering Cyber Summer Camp sessions for a fee.

“We provide free cyber programs and lessons for people who need access to it,” Samuel said, “but we’re also trying to provide a product that the community wouldn’t mind paying for and supporting us, to keep our doors open.”

As Citizen Science Lab marks half a decade in operation, Samuel said he is proud to be seeing some of the youngsters who participated in the first year of the program now in the midst of their high school careers.

“We’ve seen our high school students who started with us go to college to become biology majors or engineering majors,” he said.

And for those who still live locally, Samuel tends to employ people from nearby neighborhoods, including those who want to pursue careers for which the Citizen Science Lab has prepared them.

“It really is just about trying to make sure that everyone gets access in a fun and interactive way,” Samuel said, “and to support and nurture their pathway into the sciences, if that’s what they’re truly interested in.”

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Multimedia Reporter

Staff writer Harry Funk, a professional journalist for three-plus decades, has been on the staff of The Almanac since 2015. He has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and master of business administration, both from Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

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