Let Us Entertain Your Brain
by Jennifer Donovan
Georgi Garza gazes at the children wiggling their bare hands in the oobleck tank. Her own fingers twitch eagerly as she edges closer to the sloppy trough of sticky white goo.
Georgi, like thousands of other children, has come to the Michigan Tech MIND TREKKERS booth at the Einstein Project Science Expo in Green Bay to learn to love science.
"I don't know about loving science," the sixth grader confesses as she plunges her hands into the tank of non-Newtonian fluid, "but if it's gooey or muddy, I like it."
MIND TREKKERS, a science road show run by Michigan Tech student volunteers and Youth Programs staff, is making a splash wherever it goes. And it isn't just the oozing oobleck that's making it such a hit. In Detroit, in Grand Rapids, in Washington, DC, and at the national Boy Scout Jamboree, MIND TREKKERS is proving to kids across the state and nation that science is tons of fun.
"We are the Michigan Tech MIND TREKKERS," booms big Ed Leonard Jr., a physics and mathematics major from Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. "We're here to entertain your brain."
Nearby, Tech students Tom Katerberg and Ashwin Vekaria use great steaming bursts of liquid nitrogen to make instant ice cream. Their demonstration is entertaining the small fry and their parents alike. It only takes sixty seconds, a quart of half-and-half, some chocolate or strawberry flavoring—and a blast of liquid nitrogen that cools the mixture to minus 320 degrees Fahrenheit—to make ice cream that is not just edible, but also delicious.
MIND TREKKERS' goal is not modest. "We want to reverse the deficit of bright young Americans going into the STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] fields," says organizer Steve Patchin '98 '03. Compared to many other nations, this country tanks at attracting its next generation into science and engineering, he points out. The World Economic Forum ranks the US forty-eighth in quality of science and math education.
A large part of the problem is that children seem to get turned off by science in school. "Science is not presented in a fun and exciting way in today's classrooms," MIND TREKKER volunteer Katerberg says.
Meanwhile Tom Maynard is demonstrating a Van de Graaff generator, which must be very fun and exciting, judging by the lines, which are long and getting longer. Youngsters large and small clamber up on a plastic bucket, grip a large metal ball, and feel their hair stand on end as the equivalent of twenty thousand volts of static electricity strips them of their electrons without hurting them a bit.
As a tow-headed 7-year-old reaches for the generator, Maynard stops him. "Do you have any electronics?" the Tech student volunteer asks. The last thing the MIND TREKKERS want to do is fry somebody's cell phone.
Danny Meier nods solemnly. "Yes," he replies.
"Take them out of your pocket, and hand them to your dad," says Maynard.
"They're not in my pocket," the literal-minded youngster explains. "They're in my room at home."
Ashley Lemmen and Madyson Rothe are ecstatically experimenting with oobleck, making dripping strings and clutchable lumps as they pound it fast or slow. "They both love science," says Ashley's mother, Chris Lemmen, as she watches her daughter and the girl's best friend. "They always have. They started doing Einstein Project activities when they were in kindergarten, and they couldn't wait to come today." Ashley would like to become a veterinarian, her mother remarks.
Jennifer Gregorich is making the rounds: Van de Graaff generator, oobleck, liquid nitrogen ice cream. Now she's stuffing graham crackers frozen in liquid nitrogen into her mouth, busily chewing and blowing "dragon's breath" out her nose. "She begged me to go to this science expo," her mother remarks.
The look on kids' faces as they unravel some of the mysteries of science is what keeps volunteer Liz Fujita trekking with the Youth Programs troupe. "Their eyes get wide, their faces light up, and even though the results aren't new to me, their amazement is constantly refreshing," says Fujita, a double major in math and social sciences from East Lansing.
MIND TREKKERS sprouted from a seed planted by another Michigan Tech science show called the YES! (Youth Engineering and Science) Expo. Wildly successful for five years, the YES! Expo filled Ford Field in Detroit with up to twenty thousand school children each fall. Science and engineering companies, schools, and organizations vied to produce the most colorful, thrilling, hands-on activities, and a multimedia stage show featured science superstars like Bill Nye the Science Guy and Steven Squyres, chief scientist on NASA's Mars Rover Project.
As popular as the YES! Expo was with teachers, parents, and school children, when the economy soured and corporate sponsors grew scarce, the production ground to a halt in 2009.
Around the same time, Steve Patchin joined Michigan Tech as head of Youth Programs, now called the Center for Pre-College Outreach. A veteran of middle and high school classrooms as well as industry, he's a Michigan Tech alumnus who returned to the campus with a master's degree in educational leadership and seemingly boundless energy, bursting with ideas for hooking youngsters on science, technology, engineering, and math.
Within just two years of its inception, MIND TREKKERS is becoming a name in science education circles. It was the only university-based group invited to exhibit at the gigantic Boy Scout Jamboree in Virginia in the summer of 2010. The Detroit Science Center highlighted the Michigan Tech group at its Engineers Week celebration in February 2011 and brought them back for its SciQuest science expo in March. And AT&T provided funding to take the science show to a series of expos across the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
Wherever it goes, MIND TREKKERS is changing the attitudes of America's next generation of college students. "Science has gotten a bad name, because ‘cool' sounds better to younger students," says Fujita. "What they don't realize until they get to a MIND TREKKERS program is that, out in the rest of the world, science is cool."