Reaching and Inspiring Student Engineers (RISE)

Posted by Eric Chen

When I first came to UTD as a freshman, I remember being overly enthusiastic about joining clubs. I wanted to meet new people, experience new things, and perhaps most importantly, I had a lot of time on my hands.1

At first, RISE was just one of many clubs I was marginally involved with. I, along with a sizeable cohort of my 2013 classmates, was given the pitch for joining RISE during a tour of Dr. Walter Voit’s lab.2

The concept was pretty simple: RISE was a volunteer group that facilitates science demonstrations for 3rd-5th graders. They bring some pretty cool technology (e.g. shape-memory polymers, or SMPs, and liquid nitrogen) normally found in university settings to local schools and encourage young students to explore the field of science. They also do some classic experiments with household items to get students thinking about the world around them in a different light.

2010 McDermott Scholar Abhi Raj pours liquid nitrogen.

It was the kind of thing that made me think – “Wow! I wish I saw this stuff in grade school.” And so I decided to stick around and started contacting teachers I knew in Plano ISD.

Not long after, we had our first science demonstration of the year. An important note: since no seasoned RISE members could make it, “we” was composed of freshman who had never been on a demo before. We had fun with it though, and I think (or hope) that the kids enjoyed it as well. It was really after this first demo that I decided to invest more time into the club – and went on as many demos as I could.

One of my favorite parts of our demos is seeing what kind of reactions and responses will come from the audience. There are some students who cried out “black magic!” when we show a delayed color changing reaction with the iodine clock experiment.3 Another one recognized the term “Bisphenol A,” which was one of the materials used in a version of our SMPs, and said that it couldn’t be used in water bottles.

An example of a reaction we love to see from the student on the left!

If we are lucky, the students send us thank you cards as well!

Perhaps the most difficult part of doing demonstrations is explaining in a way a 4th grader would understand how an experiment works. Our goal is, after all, to inspire the children to want to learn more – not to bog them down with equations and scientific jargon. We’ve learned that metaphors are great for this: a catalyst is like your parents and friends cheering you on during a race. The polymers in our SMPs are like strings of spaghetti. It’s important for us to not play the “You’ll find out later” card, as we want to show that science is accessible at a young age and not something scary and distant.4

RISE has also changed quite a bit since freshman year with the addition of more curriculum and funding (thanks to Adam Mendonça for getting us a grant!). It was also interesting to see how RISE grew during my first year; as we visited more classes, RISE’s reputation spread, and going to the next school became easier. But the spirit of the club has largely remained the same. There’s just something really fun about teaching kids science. While waking up extra early in the mornings can be difficult, seeing kids so excited and hearing the occasional cheers of “UTD-whoosh!!” as we leave make it all worth it.5

[1]: Retrospectively, I think that going to a school with no 4-year clubs also contributed to my desire to join a club with established leadership.

[2]: This was one of the best marketing tactics I have seen at UTD. Less than 20 people, professor backing you up, in a small room. Kudos to Abhi and Ryan!

[3]: We of course explain what is happening so they don’t actually think it’s magic.

[4]: And I also really did not like it whenever teachers said this when I was a kid:(

[5]: Really though, it’s mostly because of the kids. The UTD spirit-propaganda we throw is just for fun.

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