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Elementary Students Discover Hands-On Learning

Northwestern introduces Evanston youth to STEM topics in first Spark Expo

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December 2, 2013 | by Caitlin Tucker
Spark STEM ExpoSpark STEM ExpoSpark STEM ExpoSpark STEM Expo
Evanston elementary students work with their hands to solve a problem.
Students used science to create silly putty.
Northwestern students volunteer as "sandwich-bots."
Students give precise instructions on how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

Silly putty, paper bridges and sandwich-making robots -- oh my! On Nov. 17, Evanston elementary school students dove into the wonderful world of science, technology, engineering and math at Northwestern University’s first annual “Spark” STEM Expo.

Graduate students from the Segal Design Institute at the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science and the Boy Scouts of America invited 100 first, second and third graders and their parents for a fun afternoon of educational activities on Northwestern’s campus.

The students used science to create silly putty, engineering to solve problems like crossing a car over a paper bridge, and technology to communicate with a sandwich-making robot.

“We invented some of these events and cherry picked some from elementary science curriculum to cover a broad range of topics in the STEM category,” said Sam Schwartz, one of the graduate students in charge of the expo.

“The goal is not really to educate so much as we’re trying to inspire,” he continued. “Each event is designed to show the kids that these kinds of career paths exist. 

One activity involved student volunteers pretending to be robots. The elementary students had to instruct the “robot” to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. The exercise taught children how to think logically and communicate in a manner similar to computer code. For example, the robot only responded to specific commands such as, “use a knife to spread jam on a slice of bread,” instead of, “put jam on bread.”

“That whole activity is introducing the idea of computer coding, but it also lets children know that there are people out there whose job it is to program computers,” said Schwartz. “We’re trying to both introduce the subject and then also explain a little about the people who work in that field.”

Kofi Anaman, the Potawatomi district director for the Northeast Illinois Council of the Boy Scouts of America, first approached the Segal Design Institute in August to plan the event.

“I had no idea how they would receive my message but it has turned out to be great,” he said. “Many people only associate scouting with outdoor activity but we will always be a partner in education. Our goal here is to simply encourage natural curiosity.”

Anaman worked with Schwartz and three other members of Segal’s Engineering Design and Innovation masters program: Lindsey Engelbert, Andrea Fraga and Halle Murray. An additional 22 Northwestern undergraduate volunteers also assisted with the day’s activities.