ULSTER — At the ThinkSTEM after-school program in Ulster, kids do a lot of projects, such as turning plastic soda bottles into model rockets that are fueled by a mixture of vinegar and baking soda, and making towers that can support a full, 12-ounce can of soda with “beams” that are plastic straws held together at their ends with clay.
After participating in projects at ThinkSTEM, eighth-grader Derrick Dickerson decided to do a project on his own at home. 
He took apart four old computers at his house and used the parts to build a new computer.
“I found out it (reconstructing a computer) was something I liked to do,” he said of his at-home project.
Now Dickerson is starting a new project at ThinkSTEM: he’s planning to take apart and rebuild a Dell desktop computer and videotape the process. Dickerson says he hopes the  videotape will make it easier for others to learn how to rebuild computers.
Dickerson’s growing interest and involvement in computers is the type of thing “we’re hoping to facilitate” at ThinkSTEM, which is a new federally-funded enrichment program for students in grades 6 to 8 that is located at the former Sheshequin-Ulster Elementary School, said Jerry Christy, the design and development coordinator for BLaST Intermediate Unit 17, which administers ThinkSTEM.
On average, 37 students a day, who come from the Towanda, Athens, Sayre and Northeast Bradford school districts, participate in the ThinkSTEM program, Christy said.
There is no charge to attend the ThinkSTEM program, which is dedicated to preparing students for careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, according to ThinkSTEM’s website.
Towanda School Board member Evelyn Sherburne said she was impressed when she visited the ThinkSTEM program this fall.
“It was amazing” and “super-exciting,” she said. She said the students were enthusiastic about the program.
And she said the organizers of ThinkSTEM seemed “very pleased” with the number of students who are enrolled in the program.
There seemed to be an adequate number of students in the classes, and they were not too full, said Sherburne, who is a retired special education teacher.
Christy said the ThinkSTEM program, which opened at the beginning of October, “is doing remarkably well from my perspective.”
The ThinkSTEM program “is well received by the students,” he said. And people from the community, including parents and representatives of area businesses and industry, “have responded very, very positively” to the program, he said.
ThinkSTEM has four nine-week sessions during the school year, as well as a summer session that lasts several weeks. 
An advisory council for ThinkSTEM — whose members include parents, business people, representatives from the four participating school districts, and students from ThinkSTEM — gives guidance to the administrators of the ThinkSTEM program, Christy said. 
Representatives from businesses on the council “tell us what they look for and value in the work force,” he said.
Compared to a regular school, at ThinkSTEM kids are “a lot more engaged” in the classroom, are “a lot more relaxed” about asking questions of their teachers, are more willing to communicate with other students, said Megan Cole, one of five teachers in the program. In the ThinkSTEM program, teachers are referred to as “facilitators.”
In an interview, ThinkSTEM facilitator Barbara Lunk, who is a chemist, described  two projects that she was doing with students that were not hands-on projects.
She said that after Hurricane Sandy, she had students examine whether there was a relationship between hurricanes and global warming. Students did research on the Internet to help them come to a conclusion, she said.
Most of the students decided there “is a relationship between the severity and number of hurricanes and global warming.”
In another research project, students have been looking at the food they eat, including whether there are issues and problems with their diet, she said.
Katie Barto, a sixth-grader from the Towanda School District, said she has become more interested in science as a result of attending the ThinkSTEM program.
“We barely get any real science” in the Towanda School District, Barto said. “It’s totally different here.”
The ThinkSTEM program “is perfect,” she said. “You never stop learning. There is always more to learn. Here (at ThinkSTEM) we get to do it (learning) faster.”
Sixth-grader Camden Vanalstine said: “I like ThinkSTEM because they challenge your mind a lot without you knowing about it. So you’re learning and having fun.”
At ThinkSTEM, the facilitators “make you do all the research and plan out what you are doing before you do a project. They make you do the scientific research to see if it will work, so you are not wasting materials,” he said.
Because ThinkSTEM is an after-school program, its curriculum can be modified to tap into students’ interests, according to the facilitators.
Students can enroll at ThinkSTEM at any time, even in the middle of a session, Christy said. “It’s not like they are coming in in the middle of a course.”
ThinkSTEM takes place from 3:30-6:30 p.m., Monday through Thursday.
School districts provide transportation for the students from their school to the ThinkSTEM program and then back to the school at the end of the day.
Towanda schools Superintendent Steve Gobble has said that the ThinkSTEM program is open to “just about any student” in grades 6 to 8.
School districts “will not use a GPA or anything like that” to determine whether a student can attend the ThinkSTEM program, Christy has said.
“You don’t have to have stellar grades” to attend the ThinkSTEM program.
James Loewenstein can be reached at (570) 265-1633; or email: jloewenstein@thedailyreview.com