Eighth Graders Find Out How Much Fun Science Can Be

By Danny Messinger | Published

An 8th-grade Hancock Mind Trekker watches a "foam gnome" grow out of a two-polymer chemical reaction.
An 8th-grade Hancock Mind Trekker watches a "foam gnome" grow out of a two-polymer chemical reaction.

How often do school children get excited about staying an extra hour after school? At Hancock Middle School, a new program called Hancock Mind Trekkers is giving eighth graders a reason stick around after the last bell: hands-on fun with science.

This after-school initiative is part of Gear Up (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs), a federally sponsored program that follows the high school class of 2017 through to their graduation and provides college-prep services along the way.

Michigan Technological University’s Center for Pre-College Outreach (CPCO) coordinates Gear Up and takes pride in putting a uniquely Michigan Tech spin on things. To help get the eighth graders excited about science, technology, engineering and mathematics, CPCO turned to its own Mind Trekkers student organization. Michigan Tech Mind Trekkers travel around the region—and across the country—sharing hands-on demonstrations with pre-college students. And now they’ve added a monthly stop at Hancock Middle School, bringing a handful of new demos each time.

Hancock Mind Trekkers invites all the school’s eighth graders and usually sees about a dozen students at each monthly meeting.

“We’re trying to get kids more involved in science,” said Jen Martin, coordinator for youth programs at Michigan Tech. “Hancock Mind Trekkers is a brand-new program, and it’s really rewarding to see how excited the students are about interactive demos.”

Mind Trekkers volunteers showed up at February’s meeting with eight demonstrations—each with its own Tech student expert to explain the scientific principles. They ranged from the basics of light refraction and reflection to induced magnetic fields.

In a demonstration dubbed “the foam gnome”—a perennial student favorite—Hancock Mind Trekkers mix small amounts of two polymers in a plastic cup and begin stirring fervently. After about 60 seconds of mixing, the fluid begins to foam, heat up and rapidly expand. As a cone of foam quickly rises from the cup and hardens, students can attach pipe cleaners and googly eyes as they please, creating their own gnome.

February’s meeting was the second one that eighth-grader Murphy Mallow attended. “I liked it the first time I came—the different experiments we can do,” he said. “I want to be a civil or chemical engineer in college because I like building stuff. Actually being able to do all the experiments is fun.”

Martin says she hopes the eighth graders become so familiar with the science behind the demos that they are able to help the Mind Trekkers at local outreach events, like the county fair or family science nights on Michigan Tech’s campus. And maybe in a few years they’ll even be interested in pursuing a Tech education.

“A lot of the students who come to the meetings want to go into science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) fields,” she said. “They want to build, make and create, which is exactly what we’re offering with this program.”

CPCO also hopes to spark STEM interest in students who might not have previously seen themselves as scientists. Students like Emma Mackey.

Even though English is her favorite subject right now, “doing experiments is really fun,” said Mackey, “and I like hanging out with my friends. Things all around us are kind of interesting. Who knew?”

Michigan Technological University is a public research university, home to more than 7,000 students from 54 countries. Founded in 1885, the University offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, and social sciences. Our campus in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula overlooks the Keweenaw Waterway and is just a few miles from Lake Superior.