Scientists in the Making

Artificial hearts, house cleaning robots and different ways to take flight were a few of the ideas offered when Mind Trekkers asked kids what they would want to invent. It is all part of the program that introduces kids to the sciences and encourages them to engage in the field.

The program, coordinated by the Michigan Technological University, travels the Midwest to get kids excited about science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). On April 11, the bus will arrive at Southern Door High School loaded with hands-on experiments and activities.

“We did the ‘Wow!’ of science, something blowing up or walking across water, those type of things that got the kids excited and it taught them a little bit of the science principles behind it,” said Steve Patchin, a founder of Mind Trekkers.

The group calls it a “science road-show” and it started when the university gathered local businesses in an attempt to make kids interested in STEM. By incorporating lessons into interactive games and activities, the group hopes students will cling to something outside of the classroom and not always associate science with lab coats and safety goggles.

American kids and teens have fallen behind the global average on math and science scores, according to the Program for International Student Assessment. This has caused concern for a generation growing up in a world increasingly dependent on science and technology.

“It gets them inspired about different types of education, particularly to get them excited about the possibility of going to college,” said Jessica Banda of Mind Trekkers.

As part of the Door/Kewaunee Science and Engineering Festival, the Women’s Fund of Door County is presenting the event. The Women’s Fund first looked into Mind Trekkers as a way to get girls and young women more involved in STEM fields.

“The trend we’re seeing is that girls, when in middle and elementary school, are really interested in a STEM-related field,” said Tara LeClair of the Door County Economic Development Corporation (DCEDC). “But by the time they hit high school they start to feel as if it’s for boys.”

A study at the University of Texas at Austin cites that even though girls performed slightly below male counterparts in math and science, the number of girls who pursued STEM majors in college is well below what would be expected. Lead investigator for the study Catherine Riegle-Crumb believes girls are choosing other things to study following social expectations despite being equally skilled in the STEM fields.

“How can they get that message across to girls and make them feel empowered to continue in those areas?” said LeClair. “Women and girls, when they do go into those fields, they are very good at it… but women are not pursuing those areas in the country.”

While the goal of the Women’s Fund focuses on young girls in the area, the Mind Trekkers event is free and open to the public.

The DCEDC has a partnership with the high schools to expose kids to a variety of careers.

“While career exposure isn’t new for us, exposing STEM in its own event format is,” said LeClair.

The event is set up as a big exhibition where students can travel to various tables and try the different experiments. Most activities last less than three minutes, including a brief explanation of the principles behind what happens. What kids previously understood to be magic becomes a clear concept that they can explain and do in their own home.

One favorite is called Dragon’s Breath.

By placing graham crackers in liquid nitrogen and then eating them, kids can breathe out what looks like smoke. In reality, water vapor condenses into small clouds due to a change in temperature.

Other experiments include running across water, firing a ping-pong ball through a soda can and floating around on a hovercraft.

Most activities take advantage of household items and the Mind Trekkers website features a list of experiments and their instructions. This also allows teachers to bring these activities into the classroom.

“I think our schools are challenged with a variety of testing requirements to measure performance,” said LeClair. “This is not replacing anything the kids are learning. This is just another piece of information to reaffirm what kids are doing in the classroom.”

Mind Trekkers will be at the Southern Door Eagle Gym on Saturday, April 11, from 9 am to 4 pm. The event is part of the Door/Kewaunee Science and Engineering Festival and it is free and open to the public.