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“I want to pursue a degree like this when I go to college.”

Outreach Project for ChemE Students Has Significant Impact in the Community

PITTSBURGH (Jan. 24, 2019) — The Outreach Projects for ChE 500 “Systems Engineering I: Dynamics and Modelling,” a Pillars Curriculum course for senior students in the Chemical and Petroleum Engineering Department at the University of Pittsburgh’s Swanson School of Engineering, is an integral part of the course. The same groups that work out homework assignments, other projects, recitations or lab experiments are challenged with making a proposal for a community service where they address non-technical audiences and promote the interest in or appreciation for STEM careers. 

The project, meant to help the engineering students engage with their field in a new way, had a significant impact on their audiences. Eleven groups of Pitt students reached a total of 12 teachers and 443 students ranging from third-graders to college students. 

Students were entirely free to choose their topics, their partners, their audiences, their communication tools, their service and their goals. The basic structure for the project required a proposal presentation early in the term, the approval of the instructor before the actual presentation to the selected audience, and a final presentation to the class, complemented by a group report and individual self-assessment reports. The final grades factored in self-assessment, community feedback and instructor grading. 

“Learning to communicate well about science is an important part of being an engineer,” says Joaquin Rodriquez, PhD, assistant professor of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering and ChE 500 instructor. “An important part of this project is practicing communication skills that will serve them for their academic and professional careers.” 

Many of the groups focused on breaking down engineering concepts for non-engineering audiences in a way that was engaging and hands-on. 

For some, that meant providing teachers with materials they can use in the classroom to bring STEM concepts to life. One group prepared a presentation for fourth and fifth grade students at Howe Elementary School and Holiday Park Elementary School on how water is processed from natural sources and distributed to peoples’ homes. Another prepared a video and presentation about a chemical experiment, making a lava lamp, to third graders at Stewartsville Elementary School, and yet another prepared a lecture on forces, combined with a dynamic set of experiments to illustrate the different types of forces. Several other groups created websites with chemical engineering principles and fundamental information that teachers can use as a resource when presenting these concepts in the classroom.

Other groups created in-person demonstrations designed to engage young audiences. One group prepared a background presentation and a set of three chemical reaction experiments—elephant tooth-paste, a vitamin C clock, and a Luminol demonstration—on stage at Freedom Area Middle School with about 100 sixth-graders in attendance. The students were invited to take part in the experiments, a call they answered with enthusiasm.

The projects weren’t all geared toward a K-12 audience, though; others sought to reach non-engineering majors to show how engineering impacts everyone. One group prepared a video about the Haber-Bosch process and its dramatic impact on agriculture to sustain a growing world population. The video was presented at a meeting of the Pitt Muslim Students Association, a group with a diverse educational background. Another prepared a video with animations on the scientific principles behind the operation of microwave ovens to a class of non-STEM major students at Pitt.

“Our students each found unique ways to engage with their audiences and make science exciting, enjoyable, and importantly, clear,” says Rodriguez. “They were strong ambassadors for the field of chemical engineering and STEM careers, and I’m proud of the impact our students have in our community.” 

The feedback provided by the students and teachers shows the great impact these outreach efforts had. In response to a group’s website detailing solar power and chemical engineers’ role in it, the instructor said, “The site provided a lot of useful information on how prevalent these forms of sustainable energy are becoming in the United States and around the world, which started several side conversations with my students about the importance of sustainable energy –which, I believe, is alone the marking of a huge success. To have tapped into the interests of teenagers to such a degree that they talk about renewable energy with interest is, truly, a remarkable feat.”

Author: Maggie Pavlick

Contact: Maggie Pavlick