CMU festival helps young students explore engineering
February 20, 2017 12:00 AM
Nate Guidry/Post-Gazette. 20170219. For Local. Reporter Gretchen McKay.Clara Cheyre, 4, of Fox Chapel, builds crystal structure with marshmallows during Carnegie Mellon University's first annual Explore Engineering! Festival Feb. 19, 2017. The festival together hundreds of K-12 students from across the Pittsburgh region to explore their interest in engineering through a day of hands-on demos.
By Gretchen McKay / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
With its spring-like temperatures and blue skies worthy of Colorado, Sunday would have been a perfect day for Dionna Bobo to be going door to door selling Thin Mints and caramel-coconut-flavored Samoas for Girl Scout Troop 58022.
Instead, the 8-year-old Brownie and Ellis School second-grader spent the afternoon traipsing around Carnegie Mellon University’s Roberts Engineering Hall, exploring a subject she finds nearly as sweet as a box of Girl Scouts cookies: the world of engineering.
Or, as she explained it with a cheek-to-cheek grin, “I want to be a person who builds things when I grow up.”
She was in good company, as one of hundreds of students in grades K-12 who attended the university’s first-ever “Explore Engineering!” festival, an afternoon of hands-on demos and interactive activities designed to expose kids to a variety of engineering disciplines.
Five months in the making, the event included 21 separate stations spread over three floors and two buildings where students could learn about everything from robotics to cybersecurity to how engineers are working to create engineered lung replacements to help patients with cystic fibrosis and other lung diseases. Attendees also got to try their hand at building crystal structures out of marshmallows and toothpicks, extract DNA out of strawberries, get up close and personal with a robot and see a 3-D printer, layer by layer, create plastic Pokemon Squirtle figures.
More than 1,000 students in grades K-12 from Allegheny and surrounding counties registered for the free event, said Alicia Angemeer, manager of the College of Engineering’s Engineering Research Accelerator broader impacts program — a turnout that both surprised and delighted organizers.
The university does a lot of programs to share its research with the community, and is equally committed feeding the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) pipeline at the elementary, middle school and high school level with more hands-on, inquiry-based learning.
Extracurricular activities such as the “Explore Engineering!” festival, said Annette Jacobson, CMU’s associate dean for undergraduate studies, both initiates and fosters an interest in science by making it fun.
“We also love that our grads and undergrads get to talk to the community about their work, and get experience talking in front of a crowd” and grow into mentors, Ms. Jacobson said.
Sean Reidy, left, and Danielle Quan talk about an autonomous buggy they’ve built on Sunday at Carnegie Mellon University’s first-annual Explore Engineering! Festival. (Nate Guidry/Post-Gazette)
Another important benefit: Organizers got to show off parts of the 100,000-square-foot Sherman and Joyce Bowie Scott Hall, home to the biomedical engineering department and one of the newest additions to the CMU campus.
The activities were designed with all ages in mind. At an interactive designed to teach kids about the Marangoni effect — where a liquid with a high surface tension pulls more strongly on the surrounding liquid than a liquid with a low surface tension — 8-year-old Ben Hunt of Forest Hills didn’t get too caught up in technicalities but simply had fun dipping a toothpick coated in detergent into a petri dish of milk dotted with food color, and watching the resulting colors spread into a swirl of modern art.
“It was pretty cool, and it seems fun to build stuff,” said Ben, who wants to be an engineer when he grows up.
One room over, Dionna Bobo and a half-dozen other youngsters stood similarly transfixed in front of a table holding a box of bright-pink sand, a small rectangle of glass and a collection of eye droppers. Charles Sharkey, a second-year Ph.D. chemical engineering student at CMU, was about to explain the magic of superhydrophobic surfaces. Their excitement was palpable.
“Did you ever get caught in the rain?” Mr. Sharkey asked the children, who nodded in response. “Well, certain plants don’t like to get wet, either,” he told them.
Take the lotus plant on the table. It leaves are so water repellent, Mr. Sharkey explained, that when it rains, water droplets just bounce and roll off. The leaves might look smooth, but if you zoomed in with a microscope, you’d see they actually have a rough surface with ridges, “or what we call a nanostructure,” he said.
To drive the point home, he asked the children to squirt some water from an eye dropper onto the leaves, “and see what happens.” They did, and giggled in delight when the droplets immediately rolled off. Then, they tried similar experiments on a square of glass, a piece of T-shirt material and sand that had been treated with a substance meant to re-create the water-repellent lotus effect.
“As engineers, we try to recreate what nature does for everyday products of life,” Mr. Sharkey said.
The festival, he said, built on his department’s strong culture of outreach by showing kids “what engineers do on a daily basis.”
For Dionna’s mother, Denell McArthur of Penn Hills, the event was a great way to encourage Dionna’s emerging love of science and desire to learn..
“I wanted her to see what’s out there, to see thing I didn’t know about,” said said.
Gretchen McKay: email@example.com, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay.
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