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STEM branches out

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Day of activities broadens kids' exposure to science, UD

​Patrese Robinson-Drummer and Andrew Garcia introduce the visiting youngsters to the day's activities.

The 125-plus seventh-graders who streamed onto the University of Delaware campus from Wilmington’s A.I. du Pont Middle School on May 8 quickly filled the long tables set up for them in Trabant University Center. But they didn’t sit still for long.

After a brief introduction to the day’s activities, they were soon busy hitting hockey pucks into a net, puzzling over optical illusions, peering into microscopes, playing computer-coding games and watching in some amazement as a UD faculty member spoke to them matter-of-factly about insects and arachnids while a scorpion lounged on her outstretched hand.

The activities were part of the first Brain-STEM Day at UD, an interactive science festival organized by a group of neuroscience graduate students who founded the community outreach group Project Brain Light and by Nu Rho Psi, the national neuroscience honor society.

Project Brain Light’s members want to expose children—particularly those who might not otherwise have such experiences until high school—to the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and math and to the resources available at UD.


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​Deborah Delaney, associate professor of entomology and wildlife ecology, shows off a flat rock scorpion named Duane.

“When you’re a kid, and especially from a community that’s historically underrepresented in STEM, it’s so important to get the kinds of science experiences you might not get in the classroom,” said Andrew Garcia, a neuroscience doctoral student in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences.

Garcia, who is a founder and president of Project Brain Light, said that, while growing up in Los Angeles, he never would have imagined a future in which he’d not only graduate from college but also go on to conduct scientific research and pursue a doctorate.

“It’s especially important to start young, in middle school, to see what future college educations and careers are possible,” he said. “If I had these kinds of experiences in middle school, I might have taken my high school classes more seriously.”

The organization’s vice president, Patrese Robinson-Drummer, is so passionate about getting kids excited about science that she’s continued her involvement with Project Brain Light even after earning her doctorate in neuroscience at UD in January. Now a postdoctoral researcher at New York University, she came back to Delaware for Brain-STEM Day.

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​Rebecca Della Valle, a neuroscience doctoral student and former middle school science teacher, shows students models of the brain and its specialized regions.

“Science is a perfect subject to engage children because you can do activities that are so hands-on and fun while they’re learning,” she said. “And middle school is a great age because you can still get them excited about science.”

Robinson-Drummer grew up in a low-income area of Philadelphia and, like Garcia, said she’s always aware of the importance of exposing youngsters, especially those from groups historically underrepresented in higher education and in STEM, to the opportunities available to them. During her introductory talk to the group at Brain-STEM Day, one student asked her if it’s hard to get into the University of Delaware.

“That’s the kind of question I always love to hear,” she said later. “It means they’re seeing the possibility of college, maybe of becoming a scientist, and they’re starting to think ahead.”

(Her answer: It’s not hard to be admitted to UD if you’re prepared. Take challenging classes in high school, work hard and focus on your goals.)

Brain-STEM Day also featured a walking tour of four high-tech laboratories on campus.

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​More than 125 students from A.I. duPont Middle School in Wilmington came to the UD campus for Brain-STEM Day, exploring some two dozen interactive science exhibits set up in Trabant University Center.

In the Keck Center for Advanced Microscopy and Microanalysis in Harker Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Laboratory, the students saw and learned about both a scanning electron microscope and a transmission electron microscope (TEM). The instructors explained that these microscopes use a beam of electrons rather than using light, which powers the microscopes students were used to in science class. One student expressed her interest in DNA and learned that the TEM is able to see the DNA structure. The students then toured the nanofabrication facility in Harker Lab and its two clean rooms, where graduate student David J-Niedober Maisson explained that scientists are now “building things at that level of zoom” the students had seen with the electron microscopes. They learned how studying physical materials—down to their atomic and molecular structures—can be applied to medical diagnostics and harnessing solar energy.

The final stops on the tour were in the Center for Biomedical and Brain Imaging, where two students went through an MRI simulation.

The group then went to see the actual MRI machine, described as a “giant magnet.” To demonstrate the magnet’s power, the instructor entered the room holding a rope tied to a wrench. Students applauded as the wrench floated in midair.

The day of activities at UD was Project Brain Light’s largest event to date, but group members have worked with other young students in various locations in the region, including schools, community centers and the Philadelphia Science Festival.

Brain-STEM Day was sponsored by Project Brain Light and UD’s Center of the Study of Diversity and Center for Science, Ethics and Public Policy.

Article by Ann Manser; photos by Evan Krape

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STEM branches out