Dr. Chad Leverette wants high schools students to start thinking about careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM. 

"That's our goal," Leverette said. "we're trying to help them from high school to career."

As Interim Dean of College of Science and Engineering, Leverette has a major role in hosting USC Aiken's STEM Friday, an annual event designed to educate and give high school students hands-on experience with some of the careers in STEM-related fields.

Leverette said U.S. Department of Commerce research indicates STEM fields are the fastest-growing career fields in the country.

Almost 200 students from 20 high schools from Georgia to the Richland County area came to the event on Friday. Leverette said STEM Friday has been so successful that attendance has grown 672% in the past two years.

"Our desire is to broaden STEM awareness to kind of help students imagine themselves in a STEM career, to think about college and what that can provide," Leverette said. "So we talk a lot about that ... Of course, we want them to be Pacers. But it's really about giving them an awareness and thinking about what the next step is for them."

During STEM Friday, students signed up for interactive programs in fields such as psychology, geology, computer science and engineering. 

One of those students was Evan Williams, who attends Silver Bluff High School. Williams, who is a student athlete, signed up for the exercise science program.

"I think STEM day is great," Williams said. "It helps expand my horizons and think about after high school by learning about engineering, math and science and all that. It helps me think about what more jobs are out there, what places like Savannah River Site has to offer ... To learn what's available for a teenager like me."

During the sessions, Williams and his classmates got to learn about how exercise programs are developed for athletes and how the human body reacts to changes such as weight training or smoking.

"I thought it was really cool," Williams said. "They talked about not just sitting around but getting out there and exercising. They talked about how it can really mess you up in the long term by not exercising well."

Some of the teachers who attended STEM Friday spoke of how the event encouraged their students to pursue STEM studies by giving them real-world examples of STEM careers.

"I think it's great," said Caitlin Current, a math teacher at Mead Hall. "I think a lot of these kids don't get exposed to engineering and math ... We talk about it in class, but it's reinforced here." 

Kristina Rackley is a general assignment reporter with the Aiken Standard.