HISD students get firsthand experience with careers in STEM

How much spaghetti does it take to hold one big marshmallow?

One may not ever think of such a thing. Who puts marshmallows on pasta? But dozens of Houston eighth- and ninth-graders know the answer, thanks to students at Rice University.

Houston Independent School District students got up close and personal with science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) concepts at Rice Empower’s STEM Expo March 7-8. Rice Empower is a student service organization that promotes science literacy, civic science and exploration of STEM careers.

STEM students

Students from M.C. Williams Middle School work on an experiment in Rice's Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen.

Approximately 150 youngsters participated in sessions ranging from demonstrations of Newton’s laws of physics and Rice’s own robotic technology to small-scale engineering and chemistry activities. The students also had the opportunity to tour the Rice campus and interact with Rice students and faculty members to learn more about STEM careers and college life.

“For years, there’s been a national lack of interest in STEM fields,” said Trent Navran, a McMurtry College sophomore and Rice Empower president. “Even though jobs that demand scientific expertise are steadily growing, there are fewer students pursuing careers in these fields. We’ve taken it upon ourselves to help students understand what it might be like to work in one of these fields.”

Students from M.C. Williams Middle School listened intently as Martel College junior Matthew Johnson, part of the STEM Expo coordinating team, explained one of the day’s activities. “The Marshmallow Challenge” required students to build a structure that could support the weight of a large marshmallow using only spaghetti, tape and string. At the end of the challenge, the structures were measured and the tallest structure was named the winner.

Amit Suneja ’12, the students’ teacher, said that the STEM Expo did a great job of “fascinating” his students with STEM subjects.

“One of the key issues across the U.S. is that students are just not interested in math and science,” he said. “Many of them view these subjects as a jumble of numbers and concepts that don’t apply to them. The STEM Expo has helped my students engage and become interested in these different topics.”

J’Da Pickard, one of Suneja’s students, called Rice Empower “a great program.”

“I’ve had a lot of fun today,” she said. “We got to do a lot of different experiments and learn new things.”

“We’re really excited to have had such a great group of kids on campus,” said Valerie Bolaños, a Martel College senior and the STEM Expo coordinator. “We have been planning for this for months now, and it has finally become a reality. It would never have happened without the support of the amazing coordinating team, advisers, faculty members, Dr. Carolyn Nichol [director of Rice's School Science and Technology Program], Lisa Blinn [associate director of Rice's Institute of Biosciences and Bioengineering] and Schlumberger [event sponsor]. We’re really grateful for all of their time and help with this and we hope we can make this an annual event.”

Rice Empower was founded in 2010 by Kareem Ayoub ’12 and Thierry Rignol ’12 to promote science literacy and the exploration of STEM subjects. The organization partners with K-12 institutions, Rice academic departments and Houston community members to give students a real-world taste of STEM careers.

“The group was initially created in response to the growing divide between science and the public in society,” Ayoub said. “As Rice students, we wanted to do our part to inspire youth and work with the public in a novel way to close this gap.”

STEM studentsAfter seeing the positive impact and response from the Houston community, Ayoub and Rignol made the decision to expand Rice Empower to form World STEM Works (WSW), an international network of universities that have adopted the Rice Empower model to inspire interest in STEM fields. WSW currently has chapters at Rice, Duke University, Georgia Institute of Technology, the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, Johns Hopkins University, the National University of Singapore, University of Bombay, University of Hyderabad, University of Oxford and the University of Texas at Austin.

“WSW’s mission is to do our part, however big or small, in accomplishing three global tasks: inspiring our underserved youth to pursue STEM fields, closing the gap between science and the public and working at the interface of science and policy to develop leaders in STEM who carry dual rules as civic scientists,” Ayoub said. “We have received enormous support and positive feedback from the universities we have expanded to around the world and are excited to continue our work.”

“We are looking forward to adding new chapters to the Empower family, and hope to reach our goal of 30 chapters by the end of 2013,” Rignol said.

Both Ayoub and Rignol said that the STEM expo is the realization of a lot of work on the part of Rice Empower and WSW, and hope the organizations’ efforts will not only inspire youth to pursue STEM, but empower them to lead and change STEM.

“We need future students who want to change the way the world is and build its infrastructure through the sciences and interactions with other fields,” Ayoub said. “The STEM expo conceivably envelops K-12 students in the scientific world of Rice, a top university with an environment to inspire. Furthermore, this event challenges these students to take on leadership roles in continuing this type of outreach in their own communities.”

Sponsorship of the event was provided by Schlumberger.

For more information, visit http://rice.worldstemworks.org or http://worldstemworks.org.

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About Amy Hodges

Amy is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.