By Helen Widman
Students patiently wait their turn to try out the pyrometer in the lab at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities (UMN). It’s not every day they get to learn about hot temperatures with a radiation tool that looks like a laser gun. Later on during the field trip, they’ll also get to witness the unfurling presence of liquid nitrogen — but that part really is just for fun.
Koen Verrijt and Brady Bresnahan are materials science and engineering Ph.D. candidates in the Poerschke group at UMN, and through this outreach effort they hope to expose younger students to the allure of materials science.
“It’s more so focusing on the students that have yet to have that (lab) experience and bringing that to them to try and excite them,” Bresnahan says.
Verrijt and Bresnahan volunteer with an outreach organization called Science for All (SFA).
SFA is a research group with a mission to support and promote STEM in the urban Twin Cities area by going to middle and high schools and performing experiments using the scientific method. SFA is unique to other STEM outreach organizations because it focuses specifically on underrepresented populations with hopes to increase diversity in STEM.
Verrijt and Bresnahan wanted to incorporate materials science into SFA this year. Throughout the school year, SFA volunteers visit the schools they partner with once a month to foster relationships with students from underrepresented populations and introduce them to scientific concepts.
At the end of the year, the students from each school come to UMN for a day-long field trip, in which all of the lessons they’ve learned throughout the year are demonstrated in a real lab setting at the university.
“Each of the days went well and the kids seem to enjoy working with fire as well as breaking the glass and watching it sag,” Bresnahan says. “Overall success, and then we also did the liquid nitrogen experiments that are on the Ceramic and Glass Industry Foundation website.”
Verrijt and Bresnahan applied for a Kit Grant from CGIF and received materials science kits to use for the big field trips at the end of the school year.
This year, Verrijt gave a presentation to the students about materials science first, then Bresnahan led the lab tour for their group. They focused on the CGIF classroom kit experiments “Hot or Not” and “Thermal Shock,” adding in some liquid nitrogen to keep the excited energy flowing.
“I also made it clear like look, ceramics (and materials) are not just boring … there’s much more to them,” Verrijt says.
While Verrijt and Bresnahan share a passion for materials science, they also share a compassion for underrepresented groups in the STEM population.
“It’s unfortunate that people who are in the U.S. that should have the same opportunities as me just aren’t (able to), based on where they’re living, their home life and we’re wanting to make that accessible to them,” Bresnahan says.
SFA reminds students that STEM doesn’t have to be boring or difficult. Ela Engen, who is an SFA co-president, believes that showing the fun side of STEM is crucial for engaging students.
“Oftentimes in school settings, STEM is challenging or hard,” Engen says. “(They think) you have to be good at it to succeed rather than seeing the excitement and the trial, and doing the experiments really helps foster that interest.”
On one of the field trip days, Bresnahan explains that students used the pyrometer in the lab during the “Hot or Not?” experiment with a refractory brick.
“They really enjoyed being able to use a laser gun, essentially,” Bresnahan says. “But they were also shocked when one side was glowing red hot, and then the other was like, you could touch it with your hand and it’d be fine.”
The goals of SFA align with that of Verrijt and Bresnahan: exposing underrepresented students to materials science while also showing them how thrilling it can be.
“I hope that they think back about this and go into that direction and realize it’s a really good field to be in with a lot of opportunities,” Verrijt says.