Benjamin Sohn interacts with a team of third graders as they pour hot chocoate mix into their machine.

MechSE's Benjamin Sohn Gives Local Kids a Taste of Engineering

December 2, 2014

Benjamin Sohn, an Illinois Ph.D. student in Mechanical Science and Engineering (MechSE), devoted his lunch hour several Tuesdays this fall to sharing his love of engineering with local youngsters at Champaign Unit 4’s Dr. Howard School. Working with students in Ellen Elrick’s 3rd grade class, Sohn taught the students some engineering principles while showing them how fun engineering can be.

During each of the four sessions, after a brief period of instruction, the kids would tackle a hands-on activity designed to teach them an engineering principle. For example, in the first session, "Blast Off," students made paper rockets. For the "Launcher" activity, the students made popsicle catapults. During the "Make a Litter" activity, they made moving mechanisms; and in the final lesson, "Hot Chocolate Machine," students designed and made one. The idea was for students to build a structure that would channel the hot water poured in the top cup down through a couple of cups containing hot chocolate mix, and by the time the water reached the cups on the bottom—voilà—they would have made hot chocolate automatically! And once the students completed the project, not only did they receive the personal satisfaction of having their design succeed, they all got an even sweeter reward: tasting the fruits of their labor.


This team of third graders is learning a valuable lesson. After watching their hot chocolate machine collapse during testing, they learn that part of engineering is going back to the drawing board to rethink their design.

Encouraged to take on the project by his advisor, MechSE Professor Gaurav Bahl, Sohn hopes that exposing the youngsters to engineering might set some of them them on paths to careers in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) in general, or possibly evenin his own field. The MechSE Ph.D. student's research is related to Micro Electro Mechanical Systems (MEMS), devices which use mechanical resonance.

"I want to inspire them to be involved in STEM fields for the development of the field," admits Sohn.

The Dr. Howard outreach wasn't Sohn's first time working with K–12 students. This past fall, he also helped Bahl with an outreach working with high school seniors in a Uni High engineering class.

During a post-mortem following the last session at Dr. Howard, the third grade students participated in a time of sharing about the experience. What did they say they learned? "Don’t give up!” for one.

According to Sohn, students learned some key engineering principles: "I believe that these activities introduced basic concepts of engineering to the students. It is hard to learn about engineering in elementary school. However, with the simple activities, they experienced all the important components of engineering: design, communication, manufacture.

Does third grade teacher Ellen Elrick agree that her charges learned some engineering?

“I think they did…” corroborated Elrick. “When we started learning, they thought engineers just built things. And they realized that they go through a whole design process, and that they try new designs out, and when they fail, they go back and try again.”

Does she think any of her students are fledgling engineers? Definitely. “I think they’re all engineers, honestly,” acknowledges Elrick. “They just don’t know it.”

Story and photos by Elizabeth Innes, Communications Specialist, I-STEM Education Initiative.
More: K-6 Outreach, MechSE, Student Spotlight, 2014


Benjamin Sohn (top left) and third grade teacher Ellen Elrick (top right) observe as a team of students prepares to test their hot chocolate machine design. Their test was unsuccessful (see image above), and the team had to go back to square one.




Program prepares STEM educators to teach all students

November 30, 2021
This summer, a group of educators gathered to learn about engaging STEM activities they can do with their students.
Full Story

Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program

November 11, 2021
Undergrads get a taste of research through I-MRSEC’s REU program.
Full Story

Goldstein’s Renaissance Engineering Summer Camp

November 1, 2021
Goldstein’s Renaissance Engineering Summer Camp Incorporates Art, Design, Mechatronics, and Mentoring
Full Story

TechTogether Chicago to Redefine the Hacker Stereotype

July 10, 2021
New workshops that can help inspire students to pursue careers in technology..
Full Story

Aerospace Engineering Launches Virtual Summer Camps to Pique Students’ Interest in Aero.

July 2, 2021
Design an aircraft then watch it soar after launching it with a huge rubber band. Build a Mars lander to safely transport a real egg, then test the contraption by dropping it from a second story window.
Full Story

Undergrads Experience Materials Science Research Courtesy of the I-MRSEC REU

June 16, 2021
Ten undergraduate students are spending the summer of 2021 discovering what research is like.
Full Story

MatSE Afterschool Academy

MatSE Afterschool Academy

June 14, 2021
MatSE Afterschool Academy to Introduce Students to Materials Science and Beyond.
Full Story

Taylor Tucker Embraces Multidisciplinary Interest

Taylor Tucker Embraces Multidisciplinary Interest

June 14, 2021
Taylor Tucker Embraces Multidisciplinary Interest While Researching Task Collaboration.
Full Story

Exposes Franklin Middle Schoolers to Science, CS

What Studying Engineering at Illinois is Like?

May 25, 2021
NSBE’s Michaela Horn Exposes Franklin Middle Schoolers to Science, CS, and What Studying Engineering at Illinois is Like.
Full Story

Jenny Saves a Convertible.

Children’s-Book-Writing Duo/

May 19, 2021
Convertibles and Thunderstorms—Children’s-Book-Writing Duo on Their Way Thanks to Illinois Training and Encouragement from Mentors.
Full Story

Improve Learning in Engineering

Improve Learning in Engineering

May 17, 2021
Liebenberg Espouses Mini-Projects to Engage Students Emotionally, Improve Learning in Engineering.
Full Story

Joshua Whitely makes an adjustment to the 3D Bioprinter during the demo.

BIOE435 Capstone Projects

May 12, 2021
BIOE435 Capstone Projects - BIOE Seniors Use Knowledge/Skills to Problem Solve.
Full Story

Elani and Gonzalo shine a UV light on a rose that has absorbed a solution that has made it fluorescent.

Illinois Scientists Shine a (UV) Light on Fluorescence

May 7, 2021
What is fluorescence? What causes it?
Full Story

Joshua Whitely makes an adjustment to the 3D Bioprinter during the demo.

HackIllinois 2021 “Rekindled Connections” With The Tech Community

May 5, 2021
Annual student hackathon HackIllinois with the aim of developing projects on current problems facing society.
Full Story

A Shane Mayer-Gawlik image of the Bridger Aurora, part of his Night Skies photography collection exhibited at the Art-Science Festival.

The Art-Science Festival

April 26, 2021
Illinois Art-Science Festival: Illuminating the Universe...from the Quantum World to the Cosmos.
Full Story

Joshua Whitely makes an adjustment to the 3D Bioprinter during the demo.

Illinois Engineering Seniors Prepared to Change the World

April 22, 2021
Ready. Set. Go! Illinois Engineering Seniors Prepared to Change the World.
Full Story

HML 2021 Virtual Health

HML 2021 Virtual Health

April 19, 2021
Make-a-Thon Gives Citizen Scientists a Shot at Making Their Health-Related Innovations a Reality.
Full Story

I-MRSEC’s Music Video

I-MRSEC’s Music Video

April 7, 2021
I-MRSEC’s Music Video for EOH ’21 Plugs Graphene, 2D Materials
Full Story

Health Make-a-Thon Orientation

HML 2021 Health Orientation

March 30, 2021
HML 2021 Health Make-a-Thon Orientation Prepares Finalists for Competition.
Full Story

Andrea Perry shows Franklin students how to take apart the magnetic drawing board they received in their kit

Musical Magnetism

March 25, 2021
Musical Magnetism: Encouraging Franklin Middle Schoolers to Express Science Via the Arts.
Full Story

Carmen Paquette street performing.

Love of Science

March 9, 2021
Paquette Conveys Her Love of Science, Dance to Franklin STEAM Students Via Musical Magnetism.
Full Stroy

An Engineering Exploration participant exhibits the tower they built as part of the engineering challenge related to Civil Engineering

Engineering Exploration

March 2, 2021
SWE’s Engineering Exploration Outreach Lives Up to Its Name.

ChiS&E’s Family STEM Day

ChiS&E’s Family STEM Day

February 23, 2021
Helps Chicago Youngsters Progress Along the STEM Pipeline Toward Engineering.

Kathny Walsh

Kathy Walsh

February 17, 2021
On Her First Foray into STEAM, Kathy Walsh Acquaints Franklin Students with Microscopy, Haiku.

ChiS&E student

ChiS&E CPS Students

January 19, 2021
Illinois Undergrads Encourage ChiS&E CPS Students Toward Possible Careers in Engineering.

I-MRSEC’s Music Video

CISTEME365 Provides Year-Round PD/Community

January 4, 2021
to Illinois Teachers in Support of Informal STEM Education Efforts to Underserved Students.