By Maya Meade
From 500 students at an outreach event to a small Zoom call during the COVID-19 pandemic, Alexandra Zevalkink never stopped sharing the beauty and engineering of crystals with young girls everywhere. During her first semester as an assistant professor in the department of chemical engineering at Michigan State University, she received a flyer about the Ceramic and Glass Industry Foundation (CGIF) that instantly sparked her interest.
She always wanted to engage in outreach but didn’t know how until then. With the help of her students, Zevalkink has received two grants from the CGIF. In 2021, Zevalkink used her second grant to fund outreach opportunities for 4th to 8th grade girls to participate in materials science during the pandemic.
Zevalkink didn’t realize how much she loved materials science until she went to an outreach activity during her undergraduate time from 2004 to 2008 at Michigan Tech.
“I switched to material science when I went to an outreach activity. I benefited from the same sort of thing that we now do,” she says. “Where they have lots of cool demos and showed us how different materials have different effects, like converting light into electricity or heat into electricity, things like that. And I got really excited about it.”
This experience led Zevalkink to understand the value of outreach and implement it in her professional career. Bonnie Stolt, an undergraduate student studying materials science and professorial research assistant, helped Zevalkink with her second grant proposal. This allowed Stolt and other students to gain experience with grant writing and participate in engineering outreach for young girls in STEM.
With the grants, Zevalkink and her team of students utilized the CGIF mini kits to introduce girls to the science of crystals during “Introduce a Girl to Engineering” day. Stolt says that these outreach opportunities allow girls to see what science fields have to offer and assists them in building connections between girls and engineering, especially during COVID-19. She says that the kits were accessible to kids and had clear instructions, which made demonstrations over Zoom much easier.
Zevalkink shares that the structure of the kits allowed for students to have hands-on experience with crystals, both before and during the pandemic. Zevalkink and her team gave a short interactive presentation using crystal specimens that demonstrate various materials properties and then introduced the CGIF Mini Materials Kit for students to experiment with after the event.
What was once an in-person engineering outreach day has transformed into outreach from home, but the exposure to crystals engineering hasn’t changed. She says that many kids think of LEGOs and robots when they think about engineering and the kits show them that there is more to engineering than that.
Additionally, she explains that showing students beautiful crystals and then explaining how they were engineered is a valuable part of the experience.
“Even if somebody’s part of the engineering, it’s not really engineering, some of it’s science, right,” Zevalkink says. “It’s material science. It’s understanding how this crystal structure leads to certain types of properties … but you start with things that everybody wants to touch and hold because they’re so cool.”
Stolt says that some of the concepts demonstrated by the kits are things she is learning as an undergraduate but were easy to explain to the students in a way they would understand.
“They could really hold and touch and do themselves,” she says. “I feel like that was really empowering for them to feel like they were doing science on their own. And I know that a lot of them really really enjoyed it.”
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