Local middle schoolers create ‘instant snow,’ map the hidden surface of planets at UChicago Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering science fair

pme nsm fair

On a recent Friday morning at the William Eckhardt Research Center, UChicago Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering PhD student Adarsh Suresh rolled ten post-it notes into tiny pillars and set each on its end. Then he placed a cardboard sheet atop them and stacked books—lots of books—on the makeshift structure.

By holding all that weight, the tower challenged traditional notions of strength and made an impression on an important audience watching: South Side middle schoolers, many of whom were stepping on the University of Chicago campus for the first time.

Suresh’s demonstration, “Strong Things,” was a session in the No Small Matter Molecular Engineering Fair. The annual event is one of many interactive education programs developed at Pritzker Molecular Engineering that are designed to promote science and engineering education and open the campus to neighboring communities. A total of 150 students from four neighborhood schools—Ray Elementary School, Wadsworth Elementary School, Bret Harte Math & Science Magnet Cluster School, and UChicago Charter School Woodlawn—attended the half-day event on April 21.

During the event, students participated in nearly a dozen science demonstrations, including smashing Silly Putty into pieces after dropping it into liquid nitrogen, pedaling a bike to power a string of lights, mapping the hidden surface of planets with machine learning, making “instant snow” by pouring water on granular polymers, and more. Each activity demonstrated a scientific principle.

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In this demonstration, Quantum Educational Laboratory Instructor Danyel Cavazos shows a middle school student how light can be used to understand different properties of materials.

Fun of exploration

The No Small Matter fair, first presented in 2019, was subsequently put on hold during COVID-19. Wadsworth STEM Technology Specialist Michelle Warden attended the fair in 2019 with her students, and again this year.

Warden was impressed by how sincere and engaging the graduate students and other organizers were. Their energy created a welcoming, enthusiastic atmosphere at an elite institution that many middle schoolers were visiting for the first time, despite attending school nearby, Warden said.

“It helped that the middle schoolers were given a lot of exploration time,” Warden said.

“I’m looking at the kids and they’re smiling and giggling,” she said. “They’re having a great time. I want them to know that learning and being in those places where you can be curious and explore can be super fun and rewarding.”

Wadsworth sixth grader Ari’yanna agreed. “It’s cool and it’s different,” she said. “We’ve never done anything like these activities.”

Wadsworth seventh grader Da’Quon said he most enjoyed smashing the frozen putty.

“All of it’s pretty fun because you get to test out experiments that you never learned about before,” Da’Quon said. “I didn’t expect so many people to be so into science.”

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In this demonstration, middle school students from Wadsworth Elementary School learn how polymers interact by creating 'gel worms.'

Growing authentic relationships

As one of several events supported by UChicago’s Inclusive Innovation in the Sciences Fund, the outreach event advanced UChicago’s and PME’s commitment to strengthen STEM education and career opportunities and create a more diverse field of professionals entering the sciences—with an emphasis on schools near campus. PME presents several education programs throughout the year, including Junior Science Cafes, an After School Matters partnership that places Chicago Public Schools students in summer internships in PME labs, and an Introduction to Molecular Engineering Program for City College of Chicago students.

“I cannot underscore enough how important it is that neighborhood schools are coming to the University,” said Laura Rico-Beck, Assistant Dean of Education and Outreach at PME. “We want to build programming that's actually relevant to the teachers, to the schools, to the students, and to us. I think that this is a really authentic way to grow those relationships.”

It’s important for students to interact with scientists and engineers, and to see the way STEM concepts are relevant in their everyday lives, Rico-Beck said. This exposure aims to increase the likelihood that the young people will enroll in advanced classes in high school and pursue STEM majors in college, she added.

“It would be great if a large proportion of these students would follow a STEM field,” Rico-Beck said. “But that’s not our only objective. A large part of it also is this idea of science and technology and engineering literacy—so that regardless of whether you choose a STEM field, you know what scientists are doing, talking about, and figuring out.”

Graduate students are the ideal ambassadors to build that relationship with the middle schoolers, Rico-Beck said.

“I think what makes it exciting for both parties is that the graduate students can remember when they were middle schoolers and the middle schoolers look at this young adult and they’re like, ‘Oh, that’d be cool to be like that.’ They can actually picture it.”

Graduate students said they were as engaged as their middle school counterparts.

“I love doing demos,” said Suresh, a 5th-year doctoral student in Rowan Group and Liu Group and one of about two dozen PME graduate student volunteers at the fair. One of his objectives was to use everyday items to communicate the marvels of science to young people. “What I always enjoy is building trust with the students,” he said. Young people are unimpressed when he first pulls out post-its, cardboard, and books, Suresh said. By the time he’s stacked the books on the post-in pillars, students “want to come to me and be like, ‘can I put a book on the stack? Can I stack the stack? Can I tip the stack over?’”

A few steps from Suresh, Susan Okrah, a 4th-year doctoral student in the Tay Lab, stood at a table encouraging students to dabble in the marvels of microfluidics. They squirted multi-colored food dye on circles of filter paper to create a secondary color while Okrah explained how the interaction resembled an at-home COVID-19 test.

“The kids have asked a lot more questions than I thought they would,” Okrah said. Like Suresh, she is a strong advocate for science communication, particularly reaching young people on the South Side who are unfamiliar with engineering and have never been on campus.

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Susan Okrah, a 4th-year doctoral student in the Tay Lab, leads a demonstration about the movement of tiny amounts of liquid.

Okrah earned her undergraduate degree from Hampton University, a historically Black college/university (HBCU). She noted that it was important for the middle-schoolers, many of whom are Black, to see a Black researcher in molecular engineering.

“Knowing that people go from Hampton University to UChicago,” she said, “is really important because not everyone gets to meet a Black engineer.”

All of it resonated with Ari’yanna, the Wadsworth sixth grader. She said she liked creating instant snow and gel worms best and enjoyed her first visit to UChicago’s campus.

“I like all the plants and trees,” Ari’yanna said. “It’s really big. I’d like to come back and take a tour or something.”

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