Wearing a pink shirt adorned with butterflies and a glittery silver vest, 10-year-old Jennifer Sapio leans on a table as she carefully guides a bent paperclip loop through a twisted copper wire maze called the Electric Rollercoaster.
Every time Jennifer’s paperclip touches the copper wire, a tiny motor in a nearby box whirs into motion and the little girl squeals in both frustration and delight. “No! No! No! No!” Jennifer says, as she hands the loop to her science partner Hermana Henry, 15, of Bloomfield. Hermana, with a much steadier hand, successfully navigates the maze, as Jennifer watches in quiet fascination.
By playing this homemade version of the popular children’s game “Operation,” the pair learn basic electrical engineering and how a completed circuit transmits electricity.
Throughout the Classroom Building Saturday, Jennifer, Hermana, and about 100 other students from the Windham School District and a few scattered schools around Connecticut hustled about as part of “Explore Science and Engineering Day,” an event sponsored by UConn’s Engineering Ambassadors program and Nutmeg Big Brothers Big Sisters.
The Engineering Ambassadors program is designed to expose K-12 students to real world applications of the STEM disciplines – Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math – and to foster an interest in those disciplines as a future career.
“It was fun, just too many loops!” Jennifer says about the rollercoaster, before taking off toward a chemical engineering activity in which the students used hydrogen peroxide and dish soap to cause a bubbly chemical reaction they called Elephant’s Toothpaste.
Hermana says she didn’t mind sacrificing a sunny Saturday afternoon to learn some basic principles of science and engineering.
“I want to try to go into engineering,” said Hermana, a student at Bloomfield High School. “This is about working hard and trying to get a jump start on your future.”
Now in its second year, UConn’s Engineering Ambassadors program reaches about 2,000 students each semester through daylong visits to up to a dozen schools, according to Sonya Renfro, program coordinator for outreach and diversity in the School of Engineering. About 120 undergraduates ranging from freshmen to seniors currently serve as ambassadors, where they have opportunities to receive advanced training as program presenters. The program has received financial support from the United Technologies Corp.
Saturday was the first time the Engineering Ambassadors have teamed up with UConn’s Big Brothers Big Sisters to co-sponsor an event. About 200 UConn students participate in Big Brothers Big Sisters, where they spend about one hour a week with children in the Windham School District, according to Jackie Lundie, director of programs for Nutmeg Big Brothers Big Sisters. Members of UConn Big Brothers Big Sisters participated in separate training programs during Saturday’s event, and then took part in team science projects with their Windham students later in the day.
“This is so empowering,” Lundie said, referring to the Windham students in her program. “This is teaching them to be creative, to explore things, and it’s a great way to teach them social skills and build their self-esteem.”
Marcelle ‘Marty’ Wood, assistant dean for undergraduate education and diversity in the School of Engineering, said that getting students engaged in the STEM disciplines early is important if they are considering engineering as a future career.
“All of the major engineering firms in Connecticut are concerned about not having enough engineers,” says Wood. “One of the ways to encourage more students to become engineers is to get seventh and eighth grade students interested in engineering, so that by the ninth grade they have a path.”
Stephany Santos, co-president of UConn’s Engineering Ambassadors, said she was seven years old when she decided she wanted to go into biomedical engineering, after watching a disabled man struggling to get into his car. She realized then that she wanted to help people, and engineering was one way to do it.
“This program is designed to inspire the next generation,” says Santos, whose father is an engineer. “I don’t want these kids to just go out looking for a job. I want them to go out there and make a difference. As engineers, we make things that help people, and we try to change the world. In this program, we want to open their eyes to the opportunities that are out there so they can do the same thing.”
Santos, a 21-year-old senior biomedical engineering major from Middletown, is one of the founding members of UConn’s Engineering Ambassadors program. She says that making a connection with the younger students will always be a very special part of her UConn experience.
“These kids that we go out and see, when they smile back at us, when they ask great questions, when their eyes are wide and they are looking back at us with all this enthusiasm, that’s really special. That’s when you can tell they really understand,” Santos says.
The activities the students participated in Saturday varied depending on their age and skill level. Younger students made marshmallow towers that were tested on a shake table to illustrate principles of civil engineering, while their older peers constructed elaborate bridges out of straws and paperclips before testing their resilience under different weights.
The tabletops in one of the classrooms looked like a mini disaster area, as the students twisted soda cans, snapped popsicle sticks, pulled licorice pieces, and pounded pieces of Styrofoam, while learning that the word ‘strong’ in materials science and engineering can mean many things. The different activities were used to illustrate bending, tensile, torsional, and sheer strength.
Some students built and raced Lego block cars to learn about gravity and velocity, while others used big purple sponges, dowel rods, PVC pipe, plungers, and duct tape to build their own prosthetic devices in a class called “Oh Phalanges!”
“It was pretty cool,” said Ethan Henck, 14, of Glastonbury, whose homemade prosthetic device worked quite well and impressed the engineering students in the room. “Trying to put it all together was hard, but we were the first group to get it to work.” Henck says he is interested in a future career involving computer engineering and pyrotechnics, something that appeals to him after learning that most firework shows are orchestrated via computer.