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Reaching Out: Students TALK STEM at Hickory High School

Materials Research Society group

Written by Avoni Gharde, who is pursuing her Ph.D. in Textile Technology Management with a co-major in Fiber Polymer Science.

Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education plays a vital role in shaping the future of a country’s economy, followed by growth and stability in the workforce. It creates critical thinkers, increases science literacy, breaks the traditional gender roles and enables the next gen of innovators. It is quite clear that in today’s era, a basic foundation of math and science is required for most of the jobs. Despite this, few students decide to venture into STEM field, and it was one of the driving forces for my team – the Materials Research Society, NC State University chapter – to encourage students and spread word of the benefits of holding a STEM degree.

The Materials Research Society (MRS) consists of scientists and engineers from various disciplines with the common interest of materials-based research. The parent organization, MRS Foundation, is an international professional network that aims to improve the world’s quality of life by collectively working toward solving problems society may encounter.

MRS Foundation provides funding through a Special Projects Grant to its university chapters to promote excitement among the community regarding materials-based research. The NC State University Chapter received $1,000 from the MRS Foundation through a grant proposal titled, “Materials Research for Economic Mobility.” This grant proposal focuses on how an education in STEM can afford socioeconomic mobility through its opportunities.

As a university chapter, our primary goal is to bring together graduate students from various fields to promote interdisciplinary communication and collaboration. We also hope to provide professional development and outreach opportunities to our members to get them more engaged in the community and prepared for life after graduate school. We currently host events such as research competitions, seminar series, networking events, and STEM outreach programs.  We hope to grow our chapter by bringing in students from different fields and getting our members more involved.

Our team:

For the November STEM Outreach program, we decided to visit Hickory High School (HHS) in Hickory, North Carolina. James, an alumnus of HHS, made it possible for us to visit his alma mater before Thanksgiving break. Our audiences were ninth graders and a few juniors – we had four periods to present our work and demo a few experiments; each period comprised of nearly 30 students. It was necessary for us to show the kids that STEM isn’t just chemistry in a laboratory, nor does it involve a desk job 100 percent of the times. We wanted to broaden their minds and help them recognize the opportunities that STEM offers. Therefore we showed videos about solving transportation problems in Haiti and manufacturing prosthetics. We talked about working at Disney Engineering, where collaborative teams comprised of individuals from design, creativity, story writing, architecture, engineering, graphics and safety work on the design and architecture for attractions like “Guardians of the Galaxy”. We also pointed out the available resources regarding market and job scenarios, funding sources, scholarship programs, mixing hobbies and making a career out of it with the help of STEM education.

Making vanilla ice cream using liquid nitrogen
Making vanilla ice cream using liquid nitrogen

Each team member addressed students’ questions and also spoke of the hardships that were faced – such as Dennis being the first generation in his family to attend college, and me, leaving my home and traveling thousands of miles to pursue a Ph.D. at the prestigious Wilson College of Textiles. We made them aware that we were just like them at one point – uncertain but hopeful about living our dreams! Towards the end of our presentation, we demonstrated four different experiments to depict the team member’s various areas of education: Peter’s shape memory alloys; James’ electrochemistry and battery demo; Dennis and Daniel’s liquid nitrogen Ice-cream; and my polymer chemistry to produce nylon 6,10, which prompted many students to refer to it as ‘Spiderman’s web.’ It was obvious that the kids loved all four demos, especially the opportunity to participate and help us.

It was the first time I got to be a part of such an important movement of educating and empowering, and it felt good to know we may have transformed a few kids into considering getting a STEM degree after our talk. It taught me that when guided in the right path, these kids can be the positive change and leaders that the world will need. I hope the children did see how this education is pertinent to the future, to THEIR future.

Featured above from left to right:  Avoni Gharde, Peter Feldtmann, James Mitchell, Dennis Szymanski and Daniel Yonemoto.