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UMS STEM Night Exhibitors Hope Their Enthusiasm for STEM Is Contagious

Eleven year-old Jaden waits to see the his geyser erupt.
A middle school student watches to see if the geyser he made erupts. (It did!)

April 25, 2014

Excited about sharing their passion for STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) with Urbana Middle School students and their families, some area folks devoted a Thursday evening to participate in the school's fourth STEM Night on April 10, 2014. For example, members of the Fouke Research Group, the Society of Women Engineers, and Materials Advantage brought fun STEM hands-on activities with which to engage visitors.

Organized by the Urbana School District's STEM Coordinator, Tina Lehr, STEM Night showcased twelve groups, including six from the University of Illinois, two from Illinois State University, as well as exhibits by the City of Urbana; Cummings, Inc; the Orpheum Children's Science Museum; and a fourth grader from Thomas Paine Elementary School who presented an exhibit she had made on tornadoes.

According to Lehr, one goal of STEM night, in addition to exposing students to STEM, was to highlight STEM careers:

"The purpose of tonight's event is to highlight student learning in the areas of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) in Urbana School District. We have several scientists from the community here to share some demonstrations and activities related to their area of expertise. There are also some students sharing their own work. We hope this event will give students and their families the opportunity to explore some STEM-related careers and fantastic student work!"

Several members of the Fouke research group await visitors to STEM night.
Several members of the Fouke research group await STEM night visitors.

Decked out in fun attire representing several STEM careers (doctor/researcher, scuba diver, and park ranger, as well as their own, that of a geologist), several researchers from the Bruce Fouke research group on campus offered hands-on activities dealing with the evolutionary dynamics of life on earth. At their exhibit, visitors could use a ProScope, a wireless, handheld genomic digital microscope, to investigate rock and animal samples from Yellowstone National Park. Magnified images of the artifacts were then projected to a computer screen. Their other activities involved ph and temperature testing, and making models of geysers that actually erupted.

Danielle Malone (right) guides 9-year-old Kevin through how to use the catapult.
Danielle Malone (right) explains to 9-year-old Kevin how to use the catapult.

Also participating in STEM Night were several members of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE).

For example, Danielle Malone, a member of SWE's Outreach Committee, helped with a game where students would use a machine capable of catapulting candy through various cutouts in posterboard; if they successfully got a piece of candy through, they got to keep it. Malone, who grew up in Monticello, Illinois, is studying Mechanical Engineering. She participated in the STEM night to help recruit girls to engineering.

"I look around the class," says Malone, and a lot of times I am the only girl in the room, and kind of wonder why. I like going out and showing that girls can be engineers."

Malone also likes to show kids that "engineering is not just about science and math, but it is also about creativity, helping people, and doing all kinds of cool things."

Ilana Slutsky, a freshman in Civil Engineering, also wants to get kids excited about STEM. "We're part of outreach, and part of it is going out to the schools and exposing students to science and engineering through fun activities. I love interacting with younger kids. I just really enjoy doing it."

Slutsky also indicates that attending events like this when she was young also got her turned on to science.

"I remember when I was a kid, and this happened in our school, it really got me into science. So it is nice to go back and see how excited kids get about little things."

Sarah Stranieri (right) helps 5-year old Kegion do an activity that allows the students to paint using electrical impulses from batteries.
Sarah Stranieri (right) helps a kindergartener from Thomas Paine School do an activity that allows the students to paint using a contraption powered b electrical impulses from batteries.

Another SWE member, Sarah Stranieri, a freshman in Chemical Engineering, also remembers attending a science fair when she was in middle school back in New York. She hopes to interest kids in STEM, but also foster their creativity: "where you can think as creatively as we are doing— something like this where you can have art and engineering where they intersect. I guess the more creative side of engineering . A lot of people just think it's science and math, but it is a lot of free thinking."

Emily Matijevich, a sophomore in Bioengineering who hopes to go into orthotics and prosthetics, got involved with Society of Women Engineers because its been a real resource to her as a female student in engineering: "It's the best way to meet other female engineer on campus."

Depa Kote illustrates a metal that transfers the heat from her fingers to cut through an ice cube.
Depa Kote illustrates a metal that transfers the heat from her fingers to cut through an ice cube.

Also interested in recruiting more females into engineering, Matijevich says involvement in SWE provides "opportunities to reach out to the community, and outreach events, and to get to work with the next generation of engineers. "Because one day, we hope that there will be more females pursuing STEM fields."

Sharing their love of materials science and engineering were four members of Materials Advantage, a campus student organization for Material Science and Engineering (MatSE) students. The organization's service committee, the four are in charge of service projects and outreach, and, thus, left their studies for a few hours to participate in the STEM night. Was their goal to recruit?

"It's not really recruiting," says Depa Kote, a freshman in MatSE. "It's more getting the message out. Because I know, when I applied to college, a lot of people didn't know what material science was. When I said, 'Yeah, I'm going to U of I in material science and engineering,' they'd ask, 'What is that?'

Materials science is an interdisciplinary field applying the properties of matter to various areas of science and engineering. Says Kote, "This is stuff that people are around a lot, so it's really cool for them to see things that they could use it for, maybe, or see some cool stuff about it."

What's the word they're trying to get out? That "science and engineering is really cool," says Kote. "Look what we can do. It is really cool."

Matthew Cheng
Matthew Cheng displays thermoplastic that has been heated, then a bubble blown in it.

One material they were showcasing was thermoplastic, which, when heated, becomes moldable, then returns to a solid state when it cools. To illustrate, they heated the plastic with a lighter, then blew a bubble. When the plastic cooled, it retained the shape of the bubble.

Like Depa, junior Kelsey Wu also likes giving back to the community. "I just enjoy getting people in the know about engineering and materials in general" says Wu. "I just have a fun time. Seeing the, 'Oh, I learned something new!' light up people's faces makes me really happy."

A junior, Wu has been involved in outreach like this for several years now, including a previous STEM night at Urbana Middle School. She's never had a student she's chatted with specifically say they want to go into Materials Engineering, but she admits, "I just hope that by doing this maybe some will consider it in the future."

Wu knows personally how valuable STEM events like this can be in a youngster's life. As a middle schooler, she attended two G.A.M.E.S. camp at Illinois. While the camps didn't address materials science (one was about structures, the other, computer science), they still profoundly impacted her.

"Years later," she shares, "when I was trying to figure out what I wanted to go into, I thought, 'Wait, I went to this camp when I was in middle school…' So influencing people early, I think, is really important, because they'll keep it in mind. And as long as it's memorable, and they have fun, they'll definitely think of it in the future."

Just like Wu did, who is now studying engineering at Illinois.

Story and photographs by Elizabeth Innes, Communications Specialist, I-STEM Education Initiative.
More: 6-8 Outreach, Society of Women Engineers, Urbana Middle School, 2014

STEM night
An Illinois Veterinary Medicine student who presented at STEM night brought a hedgehog for youngsters to pet.
Middle school student uses the ProScope to examine Yellowstone Park artifacts.
A middle school student uses the ProScope to examine Yellowstone Park artifacts.