The Michigan Engineer News Center

Helping hands: Volunteer outreach opens kids’ eyes to engineering

Three NERS graduate students have been helping shape the next generation of engineers with innovative outreach activities.| Medium Read

Three NERS graduate students have been helping shape the next generation of engineers with innovative outreach activities at the Peace Neighborhood Center (PNC) in Ann Arbor and the College of Engineering Xplore Engineering summer camp.

The students — David Yager-Elorriaga, Adam Steiner and Sonal Patel — are Michigan Institute for Plasma Science and Engineering research fellows and work with Professor and Chair Ron Gilgenbach in his Plasma, Pulsed Power and Microwave Laboratory.

During academic year 2012 – ’13, the trio provided after-school tutoring at the PNC, whose mission is to help underserved adults and children discover options and enhance skills for self-sufficiency and positive community involvement, according to its website.

The three U-M students tutored middle-schoolers in subjects ranging from math to French and Spanish. The trio also created a Science Day enrichment program for the Center. They modeled their program on a similar event created by Associate Professor John Foster for a local school.

Several Science Day stations brought textbook concepts to life for PNC clients. The kids learned about plasma, made tin foil float with a Van de Graaff generator and used liquid nitrogen to freeze graham crackers, bananas and grapes (which, to the kids’ fascination and delight, shattered).

“Some of the kids didn’t seem as motivated about their school work as they were about the hands-on demonstrations; they loved those,” said Yager-Elorriaga.

Steiner, who has coached Science Olympiad for years, agreed the hands-on piece makes all the difference.

“Kids think of science as reading from a textbook, but if they build a small electric car, and it goes faster than their friend’s electric car, they say, ‘Wow, this is fun.’ And you can explain, ‘That design process you used to build it? That’s engineering.'”

For the two-day Xplore Engineering camp, Assistant Research Scientist Shaun Clarke worked with Steiner, Yager-Elorriaga and Patel to develop six demonstrations for alumni and the children in their lives.

Clarke gave a short lecture, geared toward the fourth through seventh graders attending, and their accompanying alum. “It’s rewarding to see the expressions on their faces change as they learn that radiation is all around us, and safe,” he said.

Campers built a radiation cloud chamber out of kid-friendly household materials, including construction paper, Play-Doh, rubbing alcohol and dry ice (derived from a fire extinguisher). They also took handheld dosimeters on a scavenger hunt for everyday items — an old alarm clock dial (radium), brightly colored mid-century dinnerware (uranium), a thorium-tipped welding rod.

“We had them search for weak sources [of radiation] that would give them measurable readings from their meters. It was a sunny Michigan summer day, and they really enjoyed the challenge,” Clarke said.

Both Clarke and the students plan to help out again next summer. They do it for the kids, and the adults, as well as for the greater good.

“If we can help others realize science and engineering aren’t boring but challenging and fun and also have applications that benefit society, we can broaden the impact of science education for everyone,” Steiner said.

Visit the Xplore website for information on the 2015 Xplore Engineering Summer Camp to be held June 25 – 26.

Portrait of Steven Winters


Steven Winters
Human Resources Generalist

Nuclear Engineering and Radiological Sciences

(734) 764-4261

1902 Cooley

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