On a typical Friday or Saturday, corridors, classrooms and lab spaces in the College of Engineering are relatively subdued. The only noises you might hear are occasional chatter among serious students, researchers and educators going about the business of learning and discovery.
That’s not the case during the annual Engineering EXPO—a two-day outreach event that attracts more than 2,500 young learners from elementary and middle schools across the state of Wisconsin. They visit campus on a Friday in early April, while community members can explore during an open house on Saturday.
The event is designed to inspire tomorrow’s engineers by introducing students and the public to the STEM fields, or science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
“Our goal is to spark interest in young kids and show them that engineering has so much to offer,” says EXPO executive co-chair Bailey Kuehl, a senior majoring in materials science and engineering.
EXPO showcases a wide variety of student organizations, research groups, and even industrial partners, all of whom offer hands-on exploration stations and exhibits throughout the buildings of the College of Engineering’s campus.
Visitors might watch flames dance to the beat of a bass-heavy pop song in one room and then measure their own muscular contractions using a device called an EMG in the next building over. In addition to being engaging and entertaining, the activities introduce engineering concepts in an age-appropriate manner.
For example, at a station where children make batches of a slimy substance called “oobleck” comprised of cornstarch and water, they also learn about viscosity and the notion of a non-Newtonian fluid—a substance that remains rigid in response to a fast slap but flows and oozes under slow continuous pressure.
In other words, learning and discovery abound during EXPO, but the visiting children also learn that engineering can be really cool.
Sometimes literally, as cool as more than 300 degrees below zero, in fact, which is the temperature of liquid nitrogen that volunteers used to transform everyday ingredients into ice cream in front of a crowd of awed and eager onlookers.
With an emphasis on hands-on activities such as building air-pressure-launched rockets from recycled plastic bottles or constructing truss systems from toothpicks and gumdrops that can support heavy loads, EXPO encourages children to learn by doing—something that current students at UW-Madison know well from their own classes.
In fact, EXPO itself is an opportunity for students to learn by doing, as undergraduates lead and organize all aspects of the event, from recruiting exhibitioners to coordinating outreach to community schools.
Right now, the event mainly brings elementary and middle schoolers to campus, but the organizers hope to engage older students, as well.
“In the future it would be great to include high school students,” says Kuehl. “They’re the ones who are closest to starting out their college journeys.”
Check out photos from this year’s EXPO in the gallery below:
Author: Sam Million-Weaver