Making Aha Moments: Mind Trekkers and Industry Join Forces to Bring STEM Alive for Kids

By Danny Messinger | Published

A startling experience: Touching a Van de Graaff generator makes a girl's hair stand on end.
A startling experience: Touching a Van de Graaff generator makes a girl's hair stand on end.

A steady stream of students flowed through double doors where dozens of interactive science demonstrations waited, each vying for attention with plumes of nitrogen gas, unexpected booms and even an occasional discharging electrical arc. At the heart of the high-energy science roadshow: Michigan Technological University students aiming to pique interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

Last month, nearly 8,000 elementary-, middle- and high-school students discovered the science behind a magical maze of 75 hands-on STEM demonstrations at a three-day science festival in Green Bay and Appleton, Wis.—all presented by the Michigan Tech Mind Trekkers. Demonstrations ranged from surface tension to sub-zero boiling liquids to induced magnetic fields, each with an accompanying 30-to-60-second lesson and a chance for the young people to try it themselves.

The Mind Trekkers team is made up of Tech volunteers—students who excel at communicating complex scientific concepts in easy-to-understand tidbits for a wide age range.

Burning money attracted a lot of attention.  In this demo,  a dollar bill is soaked in a mixture of water, rubbing alcohol and a pinch of salt. Then, the dollar is set on fire, flames dancing almost a foot tall. But, thanks to differing combustion temperatures, the alcohol burns off within seconds while the water keeps the bill from burning.

“You can’t keep the dollar, but you can keep the knowledge,” said Tech volunteer Inmelda Rangel to a crowd of impressed onlookers.

By far the most popular—and messiest—demo was the oobleck pond. Oobleck is a corn-starch-and-water mixture that acts as a liquid when at rest but as a solid when a sudden force is applied—a physical phenomenon known as non-Newtonian behavior. Mind Trekkers explained to large groups of students that if they slowed down too much while stomping their way across the vat, the oobleck would liquefy and the students would sink in and have trouble pulling their feet back out—much like getting stuck in quicksand.

“It’s cool that I can cross oobleck off my bucket list,” said Mikah Gorlovitski, a seventh-grade student—and aspiring computer scientist—from the Green Bay area. “I know everything about non-Newtonian fluids already so it was so cool getting to finally do it.”

That’s precisely why Mind Trekkers exists: to give students an opportunity to experience STEM phenomena that they might not otherwise encounter.

“I really don’t like learning about science at school, but I like actually doing it,” said a fifth-grade student attending the event from Green Bay. That’s music to the ears of Mind Trekkers coordinators and volunteers—and the corporate partners who join forces with Tech at the events to spread interest in STEM.

Bethany Westemeier, a campus recruiter from Plexus, one of the festival’s corporate partners, was amazed by the energy Tech’s student volunteers brought to the event.

“It is so important to spread the message to younger students that science is cool,” said Westemeier. “We’ve found that if people go to school in engineering and science, they usually come back to the area they grew up in.”  That’s an important factor for recruiters in states that traditionally see a significant portion of their higher-education grads leaving the state.

Representatives from packaging giant Bemis, another corporate partner, were also anxious to share the science behind their products with students. Bemis volunteers explained that many of the days’ attendees would not recognize Bemis products, but they’d know the brands that use Bemis packaging.

Sure enough, a large grocery-store-shelf backdrop with familiar Mini Oreos and Sargento cheese packaging behind the Bemis booth enticed many students to pay a short visit. Once there, company research and development reps showed off some of Bemis’s innovative materials, like heat-responsive shrink-wrap and cold-seal packaging.

One of the company’s newest creations is a dual-function ketchup package that allows users to peel back the container’s lid for dipping or tear off the tip and squeeze it out of the package.  Even though the product may seem simple at first glance, Bemis reps explained, it involved plenty of trial and error and even involved  the use of a new sealant to get the desired effect.

The type of problem-solving it took to solve the ketchup conundrum is exactly what recruiters like Westemeier hope that events like the Mind Trekkers science show will spark in young minds.

It’s all about seeing “aha moments” in students, reps from Plexus, Bemis, and Mercury Marine remarked—echoing each other’s sentiments completely by chance. But considering the mission of Mind Trekkers and common goal of all participants, it’s not that big a coincidence.

“Without our corporate sponsors, Tech staff and student volunteers, none of this would be possible,” said Pete Cattelino, assistant director of corporate partnerships at Michigan Tech. “From recruitment to future sponsorships, everyone involved does an crucial job at these events.”

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.