Pittsburgh, PA,
17:00 PM

Gaining Momentum in Physics Education

ECE Associate Professor Brandon Grainger looks to inspire young STEM students in Allegheny County through PJAS awards

As a high school student in the Pittsburgh Public Schools (PPS) and future first-generation college student, Brandon Grainger wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with his life after graduation. 

His unconventional, but engaging physics teacher, Thomas Lake, asked Grainger, “What about engineering?” early in his senior year of high school. 

Today, as associate professor of electrical and computer engineering and Eaton Faculty Fellow at the University of Pittsburgh Swanson School of Engineering, Grainger wants to help young students engage in STEM learning early – just like Lake did for him. 

“Out of all my years of schooling – from high school to PhD level – Mr. Lake is still the best teacher I’ve ever had,” Grainger said. “He made physics fun, and I actually incorporate a lot of what he did into my own lessons now.”

In Grainger’s advanced high school physics class his senior year, Lake was able to inspire students to pursue careers in STEM who are now mechanical, electrical, and civil engineers as well as several pharmacists, a lawyer, and a plastic surgeon.

Since about 2016, Grainger has been attending the annual Pennsylvania Academy of Junior Science (PJAS) awards event in February of each year giving out two awards sponsored by Pitt’s Center for Energy.  Students have received a plaque and $100 cash prize. Two years ago, to continue Mr. Lake’s legacy as well as increase participation from PPS students, Grainger created an award in honor of  his physics teacher. 

The Thomas Lake Excellence in High School Physics Award is presented each year to a Pittsburgh Public Schools high school student who demonstrates innovation and technical competence in physics and includes a plaque with cash prize. This year’s winner is Thomas Aldous from Allderdice High School. 

“Receiving this award is a huge honor and I'd like to thank Professor Grainger for sponsoring it,” Aldous said. “It is very encouraging to receive positive feedback on my work in STEM, and in regard to this award in particular, it is encouraging to know that there are people in the community supporting the Pittsburgh Public Schools and their students. Receiving an award like this gives me confidence to pursue STEM in the future, including hopefully as a career.” 

Awards are decided after Grainger reviews student presentations and takes into consideration feedback from judges who saw students’ ideas first-hand through a powerpoint presentation. 

“You never know who you’re going to impact,” Grainger said. “Supporting these students is a way to create future engineers with brilliant, innovative ideas.  It is important to give back because any successful career starts from many layers of mentorship starting in K-12 programs.” 

According to its website, PJAS is a statewide organization of junior and senior high school students designed to stimulate and promote interest in science among its members through the development of research projects and investigations. Out of 12 regions, Allegheny County is part of Region 7 with Westmoreland County.