STEM Day organizers and UVa-Wise psychology professors Alexandria Reynolds and Madelynn Shell said Thursday’s STEM Day had a new twist — showing sixth-grade girls and boys from Wise and Dickenson County schools that STEM careers are not the province of any gender.
While the previous three annual events have focused exclusively on girls — typically about 600 each year — getting hands-on experience at a series of career stations in the college’s Prior Convocation Center during most of a school day, Reynolds and Shell looked at getting the message across to boys as well.
“Having the boys see that women can be equals in those careers, that sends a nice message,” Reynolds said.
“All students regardless of gender can be in STEM fields,” Shell said.
In line with that idea, Thursday’s 540 participants were divided approximately equally between boys and girls into 30 groups — half male and half female — that rotated between 30 different technology and career stations in medical, health, applied chemistry, robotics, software/coding, botany, hydraulics and mining.
UVa-Wise chemistry professor Curt Woolever and some of his students showed how chemistry, Silly Putty, super glue and a statistical fact about fingerprints can combine into the entry of a forensics career.
One station of Woolever’s group had students making fingerprints and then analyzing them with a chart for three basic characteristics — whorls, loops and arches. Those characteristics also have their own variations, Woolever said, and that means there are 1,024 basic fingerprint groups.
“You can take seven billion people and cut that down significantly,” Woolever said.
Another station had students learn how super glue fumes can be used to ‘develop’ fingerprints. As girls placed their hands on plastic bags, volunteers hung the bags in a glass vat with super glue-soaked cotton balls in the bottom. After five minutes, the fumes clung to the prints, and each student brushed fingerprint powder on the bags to bring out visible prints.
In another example of applied chemistry, Mountain Empire Community College chemistry professor William Bott got things off to a literal bang and history lesson as he tied the Hindenburg disaster to his first experiment — making hydrogen gas with acid and pieces of magnesium.
To prove it was hydrogen, Bott lit the collected gas in a test tube for a loud and bright flash.
“We also synthesized water,” Bott told the students before he made a mini carbon dioxide fire extinguisher with vinegar and baking soda and poured the gas on the candle that lit the match that lit the hydrogen.
“We want to see all the whole community involved in STEM Day,” Reynolds said. “It’s not the first time we’ve had other colleges here.”
“I’ve had girls coming up and saying that they didn’t know they could go to college,” Shell said.
If students had any doubt before the day’s activities about having a STEM career, keynote speaker Camille Schrier told the students of her own academic experience — degrees in biochemistry and systems biology and a doctor of pharmacy degree program put on hold for a year as she advocates STEM awareness and drug safety as the current Miss Virginia.
Schrier showed the STEM Day crowd a video of her talent competition for the title — a chemistry experiment peaking with three fountains of colored foam from the “catalytic decomposition of hydrogen peroxide.”
Schrier said the Miss America Pageant was comparable to the national push for STEM education in an important way — changing America’s perceptions. Miss America has evolved over almost 100 years from a swimsuit and beauty contest into a forum where contestants are no longer judged on physical perfection but on their social awareness and commitment to important issues, Schrier said. In the past four decades, the Miss America contest has seen its first African-American winner, first disabled winner, first diabetic winner and elimination of the swimsuit competition.
“Science really is all around us,” Schrier said.
Now in the second year of a three-year grant from American Electric Power, STEM Day is already gearing up for a new rotation of schools for next year’s event.
“We hope we’ll be able to renew that grant,” Shell said.
Since UVa-Wise’s Convocation Center is the largest practical facility in far Southwest Virginia for the event, the event has to rotate among other areas. Next year, sixth-graders from Lee and Scott counties, Norton and Jenkins, Kentucky will get to experience what STEM can do to open their career options.