Cowell, BTW's Family Engineering Fair Sends a Message: STEM = Fun

“I think the more kids can equate STEM activities with fun, the more likely it is they’re going to engage with it as they get older.” BTW Principal Ryan Cowell

May 26, 2016


Booker T. Washington Principal Ryan Cowell

Booker T. Washington (BTW) Principal Ryan Cowell admits that he got the idea for his school's Family Engineering Fair during their Engineering Night this past winter. He recalls standing there watching the families having a good time, when the thought crossed his mind: “What if we waited for the weather to be nice and did this outside? And because it’s outside, we could do it much, much bigger!” So he immediately started the ball rolling. He had a conversation with Joe Muskin, Mechanical Science and Engineering's (MechSE) Education Coordinator. “I think that night I went to Joe, and I said, ‘Hey, what do you think?’ He, of course, is up for anything. He thought that was a good idea, and it started to roll from there.” So with the help of a number of local partners, on Saturday, April 23rd, from 1:00–3:00 pm, BTW held its first annual Family Engineering Fair.

Key to the event was BTW’s partnership with folks at Illinois like Muskin, who quickly enlisted the help of a couple of outreach-minded graduate students, Matt Milner and Ashley Armstrong, who are passionate about outreach—so passionate, in fact, that earlier in the Spring 2016 semester, they had begun a new MechSE graduate student organization called ENVISION (ENgineers Volunteering In STEM EducatION). The two planned the fair's eleven engineering activities and helped recruit additional volunteers from their department’s two undergrad engineering student groups: Pi Tau Sigma and ASME (American Society of Mechanical Engineers).


A family enjoys trying out the "Ball Run" activity.

Also, because Cowell envisioned the fair as a community event, he also enlisted the help of some community partners, the Champaign Public Library's Douglass Branch Library and the Champaign Park District's Douglass Park, both of which are adjacent to BTW.

“One of the things coming into this school year that I was interested in doing was building a relationship with the Douglass Library to try to start to function as one big campus," admits Cowell. "That was a goal.”

Helping with food and prizes for the fair was BTW’s PTA.

Just as Cowell envisioned, the day of the fair, eleven different engineering activities were spread throughout the open area behind the school, in Douglass Park, and near Douglass Library, with a few in the library’s basement.

When students registered for the fair, they received a passport they had stamped after they completed each activity. To encourage students to complete as many events as possible, students received a prize if they went to a certain number of activities.

Families were able to participate in a wide variety of activities addressing a number of the engineering disciplines. Some smaller activities that didn’t take a great deal of time and could be done by a small group of kids or a family included:

  • Ball Run
  • Egg Carton Battery
  • Elephant Toothpaste
  • Gum Drop/Toothpick Domes
  • Oobleck Wading Pool
  • Silly Putty
  • Wind Turbines

Larger events that would take a bit longer, for which participants would need a ticket for a certain time slot included:

  • 3D Printing, Lithography,
  • A Kaleidescope, which involved Silvering Mirrors
  • Stomp Rockets
  • Fog Ring Cannons

Two Illinois engineering students wait as the chemical reaction they started resembles "Elephant Toothpaste."

A large number of BTW’s K-5 students, along with their families, participated in the fair, just as Cowell had envisioned, and it was all of the volunteers who gave up several hours of their Saturday afternoon, who helped to make the event a success.

One volunteer, Mechanical Engineering student, Samantha Rivera who volunteered at the Gum Drop/Toothpick Domes event, explains why she did BTW’s Family Engineering Fair: “Because I like working with kids. It’s the best way. I think, engineering starts with kids, to be honest with you.”

In fact, Rivera indicates that she actually wants to go into teaching, and plans to get a Master’s in Education.

Did Rivera see any young engineers in the group? “Oh, I’ve seen plenty,” she acknowledges. “Some of them are really good. A lot of them are creative, which is what you need.”

While BTW’s principal isn’t necessarily striving to steer all of his young charges into engineering, he does hope to make STEM fun: “I think the more kids can equate STEM activities with fun,” says Principal Cowell, “the more likely it is they’re going to engage with it as they get older. I think that this hopefully helps to do that.”

And one way to make STEM fun was to ensure that families would have a good time together…while being exposed to STEM activities: “I also hope it’s a nice space for kids and adults to interact together and have a wonderful Saturday...I hope it’s a place where family and kids can come and have a really good time playing with science and engineering-related experiments. I think it’s really cool to see families engaging in that way.”

Cowell’s third goal for the event was to foster a sense of community: “I hope it opens us up to the community even more than we already are.”


Mechanical Engineering student, Samantha Rivera

Because this was the school’s first year to do the fair, Cowell chose not to advertise the event beyond the school because of concerns about having enough volunteers. However, he was definitely open to nearby residents seeing the hullabaloo and dropping in, and a few members of the community did show up, as Cowell had hoped:

“I hope we put on enough of a spectacle that people in the neighborhood and the community start coming over, because I think it’s important that we become open to the community around us in ways that don’t always exist unless you purposely seek them out."

Cowell’s dream for the future is that the Family Engineering Fair would become larger than just a BTW thing: “My vision for this, if this is successful, is that we can grow and it can become a community event.”

Story and photographs by Elizabeth Innes, Communications Specialist, I-STEM Education Initiative.
More: Booker T. Washington, K-6 Outreach , Open House/Expo, 2016

For additional I-STEM web articles about Illinois' partnership with Booker T. Washington STEM Academy, see:


Two sisters show off the gumdrop/toothpick domes they made during the fair.

Two youngsters watch as the "Elephant Toothpaste" takes shape.

Young visitors to the Fair enjoy the Elephant Toothpaste exhibit.




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