Over 400 people attended the fifth annual Xplore Engineering event on the University of Michigan’s North Campus this Thursday and Friday. The program, marketed toward Engineering alumni and their children, grades four through seven, aims to enhance early interest in science and engineering fields.
The program is organized through the Office of Advancement, which supports relations resources in Engineering and their Alumni Engagement opportunity.
On both days, families could participate in up to three 90-minute workshops out of 17 possibilities in a variety of subjects such as neural engineering and radioactivity.
Families can participate in both days or just one, and according to George Blichar, an engagement specialist at the Office of Advancement, families tend to return for the next year.
“We’ve added one or two workshops just about every year,” he said. “If you decide to do two days you can do up to six workshops. Oftentimes kids will do it year after year after year and they can end up doing different workshops every single year if they want to do that.”
One workshop titled “How Much Will Your Bridge Hold?” allowed children to build their own model bridges, while learning about how to create safe bridges in the real world. Another titled “Are You Radioactive?” taught families how to measure radiation and build radiation detectors using everyday items.
Attendees were provided with breakfast before they participated in two morning workshops. Afterward, they had lunch and then attended a workshop in the afternoon. They also attended tours in the afternoon, where they could choose to venture around Mcity — the world-acclaimed test site for automated vehicles — or the 3D Lab, among other hotspots on campus.
Blichar said a big part of the program is exposing young people to engineering fields they may be unaware of.
“Given that these are all Engineering alumni who we market this to, that’s what we do, part of it is getting you started on your Engineering journey,” he said. “Many times kids don’t know exactly what all goes into this ‘Engineering thing.’ This is your first toe in the pool that is that.”
The workshops were led by University students — many of them graduate or Ph.D. students.
Rackham alum Marisa Aikins, who is now starting her first year as a Ph.D. student, helped lead the “Engineering a Cure for Cancer” workshop, which, in collaboration with the Biointerfaces Institute, taught students how different engineering labs study cancer.
“We’re basically just having the kids learn a very basic, immunology background — blood composition, some pipetting, what not, and then having them build nanodiscs,” she said.
Aikins said she thinks the event is a great way to pique kids’ interest in engineering fields they may not be exposed to otherwise.
“I think in schools right now a lot of kids aren’t really super interested in science, or they don’t really get exposed to it,” she said. “I guess I just think they need more exposure. I think when you’re younger you don’t get to see some of the cool things we actually do with science. They might never actually get to it when they’re older, and so just showing them a sneak peek at that and things they could be working on, I think is really important.”
Charlie Hall is going into seventh grade and attended the event in 2014. He attended the event with his father and grandfather, who is an Engineering alum.
In the morning he attended “Filling in the Blanks,” a workshop that examined computational linguistics to understand how computers recognize patterns in speech.
“It was really cool seeing how many languages there were in America,” he said. “There’s 7,000 languages, I learned, in the world, and America only uses 240 of those languages.”
Afterward, he attended the “Life and Death of Plastic,” which looked at the life cycle of a plastic bottle — what it is made of, how it is made and how it can be remanufactured into other items. He said he learned 70 percent of recyclables go into the ocean.
Rackham student Rosy Cersonsky, a PhD candidate, led the “Life and Death of Plastic” workshop. She works with computational statistical physics and writes computer programs that understand how particles interact with each other. She works with the Macromolecular Science & Engineering program and particularly with polymers. Polymers are chemical or biological structures that comprise similar units bonded together.
“We wanted to do activities that really emphasize a lot of polymeric properties with the students,” she said.
In the workshop, the students put together butter with marshmallow fluff, meant to model rubber, and mixed in rice krispy treats to make the substance stiffer — an activity meant to parallel rubber vulcanization, crosslinking in polymers.
“We wanted to emphasize it was the adding of something to a polymer to make it stiffer,” she said. “This is like the difference between a rubber band, the rubber sole of your shoe or a rubber vulcanized bowling ball, which are all made out of rubber but have different levels of crosslinking or vulcanization in them.”
Tim Hall, Charlie Hall's father, said not only has he personally learned a lot, but Charlie Hall really took a liking to engineering and science after attending the event in the past.
"From a parent's perspective, this is our second time coming, after the first time, (Charlie) really wanted to go into engineering," he said. "His grades in school have changed, he's really focusing on science and math … It really was a cool thing to watch the motivation coming out of the program."
Charlie Hall said he really enjoyed the event, seeing that engineering can serve to help others.
"When I come here like I am part of something,” he said. “It's very good to have engineering. It's really fun to make things that can help people one day, it makes you feel good inside, thinking that you might be able to help a person one day."
As an example, he noted medical engineers can design prosthetic limbs.
"I think it's a great idea and a great experience for kids to see what goes into engineering," he said.
Engineering alum Angela Cullen attended the event with her daughter Abby Cullen for the fifth year in a row.
"We've had really good experiences every year," she said. "Every year it seems to get better and better. It's nice that they have quite a variety of different engineering disciplines. Even though (Abby) keeps coming back year after year, there's different workshops she can do year after year."
She added she felt the students do a really good job of promoting their specific area of engineering.
"I also think it's great to be alumni and come back," she said. "The buildings are all different, everything just changes every year, so that part is fun. It's also really nice to have one-on-one time with your child, especially if you have multiple kids."
Abby Cullen said she is interested in pursuing engineering, but she doesn't know what type.
"(We learned) specifically about biomedical engineering, specifically neuroengineering, and we also learned about autonomous cars," she said.
She added that she got to help program a car through Mcity.
In July, Discover Engineering will take place in a similar setup, but for students eighth to tenth grades.
“Kids are kind of getting old enough and they want to maybe see into a little more intensive engineering after that point,” Blichar said.