PME students bring ‘Battery Day’ to the Museum of Science and Industry

At the Museum of Science and Industry (MSI) on Saturday, Oct. 14, Samarie Johnson, 14, and Jewell Davis, 10, were talking about batteries.

“You could use it for your controller, your game controller,” Johnson said.

“You could use it for your Xbox,” Davis chimed in.

As they talked, the pair held the two new, functional batteries they had just made themselves as part of a hands-on activity by Pritzker Molecular Engineering students in Asst. Prof. Chibueze Amanchukwu’s lab as part of the second annual “Battery Day” at the MSI’s Science Works career fair.

“You just see them get so excited,” said graduate student Priya Mirmira, who volunteered at both Battery Days. This year, she wanted to work at the final stop, the testing station where the children get to see for the first time if their batteries work.

“That first little girl just lit up and was so engaged,” Mirmira said.

Amanchukwu designed the event to turn that engagement into careers in STEM.

Batteries to STEM

students at table
(Photo courtesy of Laura Rico-Beck)

Battery storage has bigger impact than just Xbox controllers. The fight against climate change requires more, better and larger batteries capable of storing massive amounts of cheap, unlimited – but sadly weather-dependent – renewable energy. Grid-scale battery storage of the type PME researchers are working to create will collect this power from solar panels and wind turbines and literally save it for a rainy day.

Part of putting the younger generation on this vital task is demystifying the battery, showing young people that science can not only be done, but be done by them.

“I think at this point now I can talk to a 3-year-old and they understand the importance of batteries,” Amanchukwu said. “They know if they play games or they have a toy car, they know if it stops working that they need to have a new battery. So with something as ubiquitous as batteries, easily understandable for why it's important – to a child, to an adult – why don't we use that as a medium to bring students into STEM?”

While batteries made of lemons or potatoes are a science fair mainstay, Amanchukwu felt it important to demonstrate batteries closer to the ones powering the laptops, phones and talking Spider-Man action figures children might see in their daily lives.

Battery Day has been made possible through Amanchukwu’s National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER award. The first Battery Day at the MSI was held last October. It was a good fit for the museum’s long-running Science Works career fair, which typically draws about 400-500 youths and their families, in addition to the almost 7,000 regular museum guests, said MSI Community Engagement Manager Dulce Enriquez.

"Science Works intends to change the perception of a ‘traditional’ STEM ambassador and career by showcasing diverse careers and ambassadors​ during the event,” Enriquez said. “Representation matters."

Helping a light bulb go off

To test their batteries, the young scientists are given a series of colored lights requiring different voltages to switch on. The voltages were deliberately chosen to spur more questions.

“The battery that is made often has a voltage of 1.8 volts or 1.9 volts. That's just sufficient to light up your red bulb. But the moment that lights up the red bulb, they're all interested in lighting the other colors,” Amanchukwu said. “The person will say ‘I want to light up a blue bulb! I like blue, blue is my favorite color!’ And then we have to explain that ‘Oh, actually, the voltage you want is not sufficient to light that color up. We need to stack the batteries in series to actually get the light enough voltage to go.’”

Amelia Bird, 6, took the lesson to heart, explaining how she got over the “frustration” of not getting that green light to go.

“Because we needed more batteries,” she said. “I need to make two. I want to make more right now!”

Hrishi Srinivasan, a Ph.D. candidate in Amanchukwu’s lab, said the adults can learn as much as the children.

“A lot of people know about batteries in their EVs and such, but they don’t really know what’s going on inside them,” he said.

After Battery Day, a few children and their adults know a little more.

“I knew that people could make it, but I didn’t know it was this easy,” attendee Eden Thomas, 11, said as she held up her new, empowering creation.

PME regularly engages in community outreach programs, including Science Works, the South Side Science Festival, and the No Small Matter Molecular Engineering Fair, designed to broaden participation in STEM both in Chicago and globally.