"Awesome" and "really cool" were the words of the day as hundreds of Rio Grande Valley middle school students stepped foot into the Little Shop of Physics exhibit of 150 hands-on displays they could pick up, manipulate, have fun with and learn from during the second day of HESTEC Sept. 25 at The University of Texas-Pan American.
Martinez is just the age group that presenters were trying to reach at the Middle School Challenge held during HESTEC's Student Leadership Day, designed to stimulate young students' interest in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).
"Middle school is the age when kids decide if science and math are going to be something they are going to do. We want to give them a window to see that science is exciting, it is cool and it is accessible. Even if you haven't thought of yourself as being someone who could do science, you are," said Brian Jones, director of the Little Shop of Physics.
Funded by the National Science Foundation, which sponsored Middle School Challenge, the Little Shop of Physics is a traveling hands-on science program from Colorado State University. Its "light" venue focuses primarily on displays illustrating motion, waves and sound while its "dark" venue, presented in dim light, has activities in which students can learn about the electromagnetic spectrum and ultraviolet and infrared lights, Jones said. All of the displays are something the students could go home and construct themselves, he added.
"We want to tell the kids that anything here, you can build," said Jones, who requested that students share their own creations on its Facebook page.
Jones said HESTEC is one of his favorite events because of the passion people have in the area for educating their children, including the parents, the students and the University.
"It's amazing that all these people have come together and contribute to all these resources to give the children a window to what is possible," he said.
Other activities made available at the Challenge were a visit to UTPA's new Center for Excellence in STEM and displays and presentations by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, World Birding Center, College of Engineering and Computer Science, UTPA Office of Sustainability, and the U.S. Navy. The young visitors also got to view the current exhibit at the Visitors Center "Microbes: Invisible Invaders, Amazing Allies," and learn about the stars and beyond in the H-E-B Planetarium.
"It is hands on and we thought the students would benefit from it, especially with the new STAAR (State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness) test coming. They are going to be tested in the eighth grade and they are going to need that mental, visual connection to be able to pass the test," she said.
During Raytheon Corporation's MathMovesU presentation at the Middle School Challenge, students learned how to construct a hover board from an old CD, a bottle cap and a balloon and compete to see how far it would go with added weight in the form of pennies.
"You put the balloon on the bottle cap and there is a tiny hole under it and when the air comes out, it hits the disc and it starts hovering a bit," explained seventh grader Juan Buenrostro, a student at La Feria Green Junior High.
"This is fun," he said. "Science is my favorite subject. I want to be a mechanical engineer. It's weird because I was just talking about this with my parents yesterday."
"We show students that math is all around you. It is in your everyday life. It is in any career you want to go into - fashion, music, sports - math is there," said Veronica Ramos (BS '05), a seven-year employee with Raytheon. "We show them what engineers do. It is at a simple level, but I tell them we do the same thing at work. It is really impressive to see what these students can achieve if you just give them a chance."
Both Veronica and her husband Ramiro Ramos (BS '05) are electrical engineers with the company at their McKinney, Texas facility. She said she loves working at Raytheon and inspiring young students like she was inspired by Raytheon employee Veronica Bacica, who will speak on Latina Day at HESTEC.
"She came to speak to my introductory engineering class. She came from Pan Am. It was meaningful to me. I said, 'Look, she did it, she came to Pan Am and now look where she is at.' She showed me it was possible," Ramos said.
Visit this photo gallery to see more of the Middle School Challenge.