IME introduces middle school students to molecular engineering

James Lettow remembers how labs and science demonstrations impressed him when he was a middle school student. Now, as a graduate researcher working with polymers, he believes it is his turn to inspire the next generation. 

“I want to encourage kids who are interested to follow the same path I did, so they can add to science in their lives,” said Lettow. 

Lettow was among a dozen graduate students from the Institute for Molecular Engineering (IME) at the University of Chicago who volunteered to give hands-on demonstrations during No Small Matter, the IME’s new science and engineering fair aimed at students from sixth to eighth grade, on April 26. 

About 100 middle school students from three neighboring schools – the University of Chicago Charter Schools-Woodlawn Campus, Wadsworth STEM Elementary School, and the University of Chicago Lab Schools – viewed presentations from IME graduate students ranging from how liquid nitrogen can freeze gummy bears in four seconds to creating gooey oobleck, which acts as both a solid and a liquid. Graduate students also had a chance to talk about engineering at the nanoscale with students over a boxed lunch. 

No Small Matter is part of a series of events designed to help expose youth to the IME’s work and inspire them to pursue science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) courses at an early age, said Laura Rico-Beck, educational training and outreach coordinator at the IME. 

 "Research shows us that when young students learn about STEM early on, they have a higher likelihood of enrolling in more advanced classes in high school and pursuing STEM majors in college, which is why we are trying to find ways to engage students through programs like this,” said Rico-Beck.

And it wasn’t just the visitors who got into it. Graduate researcher Rachel Wallace, who demonstrated the process of diffusion by dipping eggs in various substances, says she got a buzz out of working with the curious young students.

“Working with kids reminds me of the fun parts of what it is that I do and why I got into it in the first place,” said Wallace, who studies bioengineering for different medical applications.

Elyse Watkins, who presented with Wallace, said events like No Small Matter help make science and engineering more accessible to the public.

“It’s really easy to get lost in the world of science where you’re disconnected from the public, so it’s important for scientists to be able to talk to the public and to explain research in a way that they will understand,” said Watkins.

Organizers of the event hope that the messages of the science and engineering fair resonated with the young audience, as the challenges their generation faces, from providing energy and water to 7.5 billion people and combating climate change, are truly no small matter. But while the challenges seem daunting, the field of molecular engineering is also at an exciting crossroads, said James Skinner, Crown Family Professor of Molecular Engineering.

“Researchers at IME are on the cusp of being able to use the crazy properties of quantum mechanics to engineer new nanomaterials for what is called quantum information storage,” Skinner told the young audience. “We are also in the midst of a genetic revolution, and we can now contemplate engineering the human immune system to cure diseases such as cancer.”