Discovering a passion

Big ideas keep growing for STEM outreach


by Judy Kirkland


SUMMARY: How did Kerry Cresawn (’98) turn her STEM-in-a-station-wagon program into a breakthrough camp bringing hundreds of Virginia high school students to JMU to engage with faculty in world-class labs as they build high-tech controllers, bioplastics, plus prosthetic arm prototypes? Passion. And Madison Trust.

What’s the fastest route from idea to innovation? Passion. Backing that passion with funding speeds the journey even more, and this happens every year as Madison Trust brings JMU faculty, staff and students with promising ideas together with potential financial supporters to see if those ideas will fly. Often, they soar.


That’s been the case with not one but three ideas Kerry Cresawn (’98) has presented to passionate and philanthropic Madison Trust investors — just so far.

Right from the start

An alumna of JMU with a PhD in molecular genetics from the University of Florida, Cresawn was teaching biology at JMU in 2015. When she wasn’t in the classroom, she and a handful of undergraduate volunteers loaded her station wagon with science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) demonstrations to take to elementary schools throughout the Shenandoah Valley. Her goal: increase the number of youngsters who could see themselves pursuing STEM careers, especially students from groups that haven’t traditionally been attracted to or invited into these fields.

Cresawn recalls how “passionate the JMU student volunteers became about the difference they were making in some of the highest-need populations in our area. I knew how much more could be achieved with an actual budget for supplies. I also knew about JMU’s annual Madison Trust and presented a case for funding our outreach.”

Her presentation resonated so deeply with the Madison Trust attendees that she received even more funding than requested. She was able to buy not only supplies, but also high-tech microscopes providing exceptionally high-level STEM demonstrations and discoveries.

Two years later, the mobile outreach was connecting more than 1,000 young students with STEM.

“Even so,” Cresawn says, “I could see an opportunity to grow it and to grow the value of the experience for JMU students.”

Repeat success

Again, Madison Trust attendees matched the passion of Cresawn and her volunteers with funding in 2018. With a new budget in place, Cresawn trained JMU students to interact with the kids, present content, and actually run the program themselves.

“Funding enabled us to pay them a stipend for all their time and effort,” she explains. “That was the difference because the commitment required was way beyond what I could have asked them as volunteers.”

A year later, Cresawn became the inaugural director of JMU’s Center for STEM Education and Outreach. And by 2020, her student-led mobile program was reaching 3,400 youngsters. As successful as the outreach was, Cresawn had an even bigger idea to present at the annual Madison Trust.  

She asked potential funders to imagine this: “What if high-schoolers could experience STEM activities in JMU labs with our state-of-the-art equipment and faculty? What would that mean to them? What would it mean to JMU’s STEM recruitment, particularly from populations not currently well-represented?”

Madison Trust attendees could indeed imagine. Their funding brought Cresawn’s idea to life early in 2020 as 200 high school students from across Virginia rotated through 17 awe-inspiring discoveries developed by JMU faculty — from making electrical controllers and turning shrimp shells into bioplastics to building prosthetic arm prototypes.

Cresawn notes that her passion for STEM keeps challenging her to think ever bigger. “The good news,” she says, “is that Madison Trust itself is a really big idea — and as more people join in, we’ll see even more innovation accelerating across the campus and community. Shared passion really is a pretty powerful agent of change!”

You are invited to attend the 2023 Madison Trust — to join the panel of philanthropic investors — and consider funding this year’s top 10 projects proposed by JMU faculty, staff and students.


Friday, March 10, 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on campus or online

Now in its 10th year, Madison Trust has launched nearly 100 innovations and is expected to surpass $1 million in total funding this spring. Seats are limited, so sign up today.

Madison Trust is an initiative of University Advancement managed by the office of Corporate & Foundation Relations in collaboration with colleagues across the JMU campus. 

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Published: Friday, January 6, 2023

Last Updated: Thursday, November 2, 2023

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