Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering programs invite students into the world of STEM

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The William Eckhardt Research Center at 57th and Ellis, home to the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering (PME), has sleek glass walls. Rovana Popoff, PME’s senior associate dean and acting dean of students, sees them as a metaphor for making PME’s work transparent: “We want kids living in the area to walk by this building and say, ‘Hey, I did a project there! I know what goes on inside.’”

PME’s outreach programs bring students from kindergarten to college through Eckhardt’s doors — and send graduate students into local schools — to explore topics in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

Smashing gummy bears and squishing oobleck for science

Last spring, 100 middle schoolers from three schools near campus gathered in the Eckhardt atrium for hands-on demos by PME graduate students. At one station, a student used liquid nitrogen to freeze gummy bears and shatter them; at another, starch and water combined into oobleck, a squishy substance that mimics the characteristics of both liquids and solids.

The teachers who brought their students to this “No Small Matter” engineering fair had attended a professional development event at PME earlier in the year and taken hands-on lessons back to their classrooms. It’s all part of a long-term effort to encourage kids to become scientifically literate citizens, said Laura Rico-Beck, PME’s educational training and outreach coordinator. “Early access to engaging and relevant science and engineering experiences can have a tremendous impact on students’ intentions to pursue STEM fields in high school and college, so we want kids to be aware early that STEM matters in every aspect of life, from their health to the food they eat to the climate.”

PME graduate students receive training in science communication that prepares them to translate their research into engaging, relevant activities for a wide range of audiences. That way, they can both communicate in a broad array of professional contexts and incorporate public engagement into their professional practice. Students with this training travel to the Museum of Science and Industry, K–12 classrooms and other locations around the city to host “Science Cafés,” where they present their research and connect it to the real-world challenges they aspire to solve.

Young scientists discover new paths

PME partners with the After School Matters program on paid STEM lab internships at the University for Chicago Public Schools students. Although they’re still in high school, the interns work on college-level research projects and are valued members of research teams in PME labs and other University labs; for many, the internship is their first job. As they grow into independent scholars, interns learn advanced lab skills, scientific concepts, and research techniques, and also benefit from college preparation workshops, learning lunches, field trips, and mentoring by research scientists.

As a rising high school senior, Mia Grahn was excited to perform meaningful inorganic chemistry research in the Anderson Lab alongside professors, graduate students, and postdoctoral scholars. She already loved science, but says that her internship experience was meaningful both because it encouraged creativity in finding solutions to a real-world problem — how to store solar energy — and helped her become comfortable in a university research setting.

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“I was so thrilled when professors answered my questions with enthusiasm, and encouraged me to explore those that they couldn’t answer themselves,” Grahn said. “I felt safe exploring my ideas, knowing that those around me valued my inquisitive nature and wanted me to succeed. And I finally felt that I had found a place where asking deep questions and never settling for one answer was a fundamental characteristic of the community.”

By the end of the summer, Grahn had acquired not only valuable lab experience but also a prestigious publication credit: she’s one of nine listed authors of “Redox-Active 1D Coordination Polymers of Iron–Sulfur Clusters,” published in the February 4, 2019, issue of the Journal of the American Chemical Society. She’s currently working on a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering at Johns Hopkins University.

City Colleges students have support getting onto the STEM track

Last spring, when the University announced the $100 million commitment from the Pritzker Foundation that established PME as the nation’s first school dedicated to molecular engineering, a partnership between PME and the City Colleges of Chicago was an integral component of the launch. Slated to begin in the summer of 2020, the collaboration will support City Colleges students who want to pursue four-year degrees in STEM fields.

The multi-year program’s pilot was developed with faculty from Truman College, who spent time at PME and also hosted PME faculty and staff on the Truman campus. “We came together to figure out what the issues are and how we can partner to approach them,” Popoff said, “and City Colleges faculty took the lead in saying, ‘here’s what our students need.’”

The program will include a five-week intensive prep course in mathematics, science, and engineering fundamentals that was inspired by the University’s highly successful Chicago Academic Achievement Program (CAAP), plus lab experiences and counseling in college readiness and admissions.

Schools learn from PME and vice versa

Outreach is an integral part of PME’s work, said Popoff, who added that PME faculty members are eager to build long-term relationships with schools and students, particularly those in the neighborhoods near campus.

“PME has made this a priority,” said Rico-Beck, who’s currently working with teachers at four more schools near campus. “Our intention is to develop integrated programming, with multiple opportunities for us to learn from schools and schools to learn from us.”


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