Students/Alumni Promote Engineering at Illinois During EOH 2016

Above, a local student appreciates the joys of ooblek during EOH 2016.

April 15, 2016

Thousands of guests of all ages flocked to campus on March 11–12, 2016, to attend “The STEM of Innovation,” the College of Engineering’s 96th annual Engineering Open House (EOH). Among them were students from local schools on field trips, including some who showed up as guests of campus student groups, like WIE (Women in Engineering) and EOS (Engineering Outreach Society). Illinois engineering students had done projects with them earlier in the semester then brought them to EOH as a culminating event. Even some former students showed up representing their current companies, like Ford, to try to lure youngsters into engineering…or to entice current engineering students into their company. And of course, lots of Illinois engineering students showed up to strut their stuff.

A wide range of visitors attended EOH, for a lot of different reasons. Parents brought their children from infants on up to pique their interest in engineering. High school students came to specifically explore their options regarding engineering as a career, while engineering-bound students sought to choose which engineering discipline is right for them, and whether Illinois is the school to prepare for it. Teachers from numerous schools brought their classes on field trips so their students could experience a day of engineering activities. And some of those classes visited campus as the culmination of projects done earlier with campus groups.

For example, WIE (Women in Engineering), did a Pen Pals project with girls from Campus Middle School for Girls. Female engineering students had exchanged letters with the middle school girls earlier in the semester, then the two groups finally met face to face when the girls and their parents attended EOH as their guests. The engineering students with whom the middle schoolers had been corresponding spent the day escorting their young pen pals around to different EOH exhibits, and even treated them (and their parents) to a pizza lunch.

Engineering students Nicole Vail and Jennifer Luebbers (left to right in the middle row) by their pen pals from Campus Middle School for Girls.

During their visit to EOH, engineering student Nicole Vail (center) escorts a number of pen pals to the SWE's Girls' Club, where a couple get to play air hockey while learning what makes the table work.

Some of the highlights the girls particularly enjoyed were SWE’s Girls’ Club, where girls (and some guys too), could do fun, hands-on engineering activities. They built lava lamps, made their own lip gloss, used a chemical reaction to create their own mirror. And, of course, they played some games: Avengers-themed pinball and air hockey. While most EOH exhibits were hands-on, one was feet-on: the girls got to operate an ecologically friendly water pump, for which the girls supplied the power by riding a stationary bicycle.

Another campus group that did an outreach with local students was the Engineering Outreach Society (EOS), which is comprised of all engineering students. For several weeks prior to the event, EOS volunteers visited the classrooms in two elementary schools in town, Leal and Prairie, to do projects with the kids to get them excited about engineering and other STEM fields.

Engineering student Kavita Desai, the outreach chair of EOS, was the one who organized the whole thing. She came up with the project, designed the ramp over winter break, got all the materials together, then she and her cohorts went to the schools to supervise while the kids made the protective devices.

Then, for the pièce de résistance of the project, the youngsters visited campus for EOH. The project, which the youngsters had been working on for several weeks at the school, was a glorified egg-drop engineering contest. The middle schoolers built carts they put eggs in. Then to test to see who had built the sturdiest, most well-designed cart, engineering students would roll them down a ramp, causing the cart to ram into a wall of bricks to see whose design would protect the eggs the best.

Why would a busy engineering student do all this extra work? “I just love working with kids,” says Desai, “and I think it’s really important just to promote STEM for the younger age because, honestly, to become an engineer, you have to start thinking like an engineer from when you’re younger. So by just exposing everyone, we’re giving them the ability to think earlier. Not everyone gets it. It’s also fun just to do science.”

Kavita Desai and William Fazio of the EOS prepare to test one of the middle school student's structures by rolling it down the ramp to see if the egg remains intact when it hits the wall of bricks.

As always, EOH offered visitors lots of hands-on activities. Several exhibits offered the ever-popular Ooblek. Made famous in Dr. Seuss's Bartholomew and the Oobleck, oobleck was a gooey green substance that fell from the sky and stuck on everything.Nowadays, ooblek is made from cornstarch, water, and colored food dye. A perfect example of a Non-Newtonian fluid, it's a liquid which acts like a solid when force is applied.

Materials Science and Engineering senior Sarah Fraser, who knows all about materials and was on hand to give students the opportunity to get their hands on some oobleck, which she appeared to have fun doing herself. Fraser has participated in EOH all four years of her career at Illinois, because she hopes her love of engineering might rub off on some kids who attend.

Sarah Fraser
Engineering student Sarah Fraser demonstrates to visitors the interesting qualities of the non-Newtonian fluid, Ooblek.

"I really love EOH because I went to these types of events as a kid and loved them. I wanted to share my passion and show kids that science can be fun. I hope EOH inspires kids to pursue an education in the sciences and keep asking questions."

Also helping with a Girls' Club exhibit was Lara Flasch, a junior in Industrial Engineering and one of SWE's outreach coordinators. Flasch helped visitors make mirrors, and particularly appreciated the range of ages among the EOH visitors:

"This year was the 96th annual EOH—it feels very special to be a part of such a big tradition in the College of Engineering! I think EOH was an awesome opportunity to represent SWE to such a huge audience of people. It is amazing to me the variety of people that we were able to meet and interact with. Some kids came with their parents, some came on field trips, and some adults came without kids, so SWE was able to reach all types of people!"

"I hope that a lot of the kids (and adults!) felt inspired by seeing all of the EOH exhibits, and felt confident that they could make an impact on the world as engineers too!"

Like Fraser, Flasch also hopes that their efforts might persuade some young people to choose careers in engineering:

Lara Flasch
Lara Flasch displays one of the mirrors she is helping EOH visitors make at her exhibit.

Ashley May, a junior in Chemical Engineering, and also a SWE Outreach Coordinator, helped out at the Avengers Pinball Machine in SWE's Girls' Club. May enjoyed the interdisciplinary aspect of working with SWE members on many of the Girls' Club exhibits.

"EOH gives our SWE members a great opportunity to work together on several interdisciplinary, hands-on engineering projects. Then, when we interact with attendees at EOH, we're able to share the engineering principles that we learned about and spark people's interest in the things engineers can accomplish."

May also appreciated interacting with inquisitive young visitors and fostering their creativity.

"During EOH weekend, it was neat to see so many kids approaching our exhibits with excitement and curiosity, and I think our main goal was to encourage them to look at the world with the mindset of 'How does it work?' and 'How can I make that?'"

Ashley May (left) and another SWE member, Quyen Nguyen, interact with EOH visitors about engineering while running the Avengers Pinball Machine.

Also attending EOH were representatives of a number of companies comprised of lots of engineers, like Boeing, John Deere, Caterpillar, and Ford. In fact, a lot of the folks from these companies who show up for EOH are Illinois alumni, who enjoy being back on campus for the event. Most came to brag about what their companies are doing and to underscore to visitors how important engineering is for their company, for instance.

One of Ford Company’s representatives was Sean Dietrich, an alum who studied engineering mechanics with a focus on automotive engineering/ automotive design and graduated from Illinois in 2014.

According to Dietrich, Ford sends representatives to EOH so they can expose folks to groundbreaking new technology they’ve developed, from the aluminum truck, to turbo direct inject engines, to environmentally friendly seating, and regenerative braking (which other companies use too). In keeping with EOH’s Innovation theme, he says these, “can be really interesting to a lot of students.”

Sean Dietrich (far right), and some of his colleagues from Ford Motor Company exhibit a few of the "toys" they brought to show EOH visitors.

Is his goal to maybe get some visitors to end up in mechanical engineering? “That’s always the goal—if you can get someone interested in something that’s valuable.”

Dietrich believes from personal experience that cool products can be the Pied Piper that lures youngsters into engineering. Following is an anecdote he shared about what got him interested in automotive engineering:

“The first time I remember being interested in cars was back when I was 11 or 12 driving down the street, and had a Mustang drive me, and I’m like, ‘That’s a cool car. I would want to design those someday.’ That led me to go on and get an engineering degree and working on cars. That’s the kind of stuff...if we can get people excited about what we do, then we might put them on the right track.”

Story and photographs by Elizabeth Innes, Communications Specialist, I-STEM Education Initiative.
More: Engineering Open House, K-12 Outreach, Open House/Expos, 2016

For an aditional I-STEM articles about Engineering Open House, see:

Cassie Arenz (center) and WIE guests from Campus Middle School for Girls chat with an engineering student about the principles that are making the air hockey table work.

A middle school student exhibits the lava lamp she made at SWE's Girls' Club during EOH 2016.

A middle school student riding a stationary bike provides the energy to power an eco-friendly water pump during EOH 2016.

Students from Dr. Williams (formerly Prairie) Elementary School in Urbana on a field trip to EOH. The students attended as the guests of EOS, to participate in their Egg-Drop engineering challenge.