PME students host a night of science and engineering for Pilsen community

Six graduate students from the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering (PME) at the University of Chicago, representing the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE), put on Noche de Ciencias, a night of science and engineering aimed at introducing young students and their families to the world of STEM.

The event was held October 13 at Pilsen’s National Museum of Mexican Art. It drew students from 11 schools across the city. Participants gathered in the museum’s West Wing for interactive STEM activities, networking opportunities, and informational sessions on college financial aid.

Cyrus Zeledon, president of the UChicago SHPE chapter, explained the impetus for hosting the event.

“We wanted to engage with the community in a way that was direct and impactful,” Zeledon said. “Instead of inviting people from Pilsen to come to UChicago, we wanted to flip the script and actually go out to the community and host an event there. That felt essential. By doing that, we could directly show students and their families what opportunities exist in STEM.”

Attendees spent the early evening touring science demonstrations put on by volunteers, learning about a broad range of technologies and concepts like 3D printing, chladni plates, ferrofluids, material design, and quantum science. Each demonstration included interactive elements designed to spark students’ interest. For instance, Brian Ingmanson, education engagement lead for IBM’s quantum community, presented how different materials could affect electromagnetic waves. To do this, participants held two sheets of polarized plastic to a light source and rotated them to reduce the amount of light that passed through.

“I think it's important to be present at events like Noche de Ciencias because empowering students matters across the board,” Ingmanson said. “As a former middle school science teacher, I know that for some students, all they need is a spark. Engaging them with hands-on activities is a fun way to learn, but that spark is what keeps a student interested, what makes them pursue a career in STEM. The more we can demystify our field, the more we can build a diverse, equitable future.”

Following the demonstrations, guests attended a Q&A with Veronica Herrero, chief of staff and strategy for the Office of Institutional Advancement (OIA) at City Colleges of Chicago; and Edgar Mejia, co-founder of IDEA 1.61, a social enterprise that upcycles plastic waste into material for 3D printing. The two discussed their individual paths to success and reflected on the importance of determination when facing obstacles.

The night also included a career panel featuring professionals from various STEM fields. Panelists included Arturo Gutierrez of Argonne National Laboratory; Carlos Vega, MD of the Pritzker School of Medicine; Luis Gonzalez and Cesar Martinez of AbbVie; and Pranav Gokhale of Duality. The panelists described their lines of work and also remarked on the challenges and rewards of navigating higher education.

Efren Munoz, internal vice president of the UChicago SHPE chapter, reflected on the importance of seeing members of the Hispanic community in STEM careers.

“I attended school in southwest Detroit and because of the community I grew up in, I was never told that I could go to college and get into science and engineering,” Munoz said. “It wasn’t until I took some exploratory courses at Wayne State University that I met a Cuban person doing physics, and my conception of things really expanded. I grew up in this one environment with one train of thought, but here was someone else with a similar background, who overcame very similar barriers—it was eye-opening.”

In addition to presentations, students and their parents met with financial advisors from local colleges to learn about financial aid options and other avenues to securing a college degree.

The evening concluded with remarks by Byron Sigcho-Lopez, alderman for the 25th ward, who spoke about the need for events like Noche de Ciencias and his hope for the University’s continued presence in the community.

“It is wonderful to see hands-on experiments in this space, to see families engaging with science,” Sigcho-Lopez said. “This is the way that we build community, and today more than ever we need to invest in education. I hope that this partnership continues in the years to come. The importance of investing in STEM education — especially in Black and Brown communities — today more than ever, is essential and fundamental. That’s why I want to thank the University of Chicago for fostering this space.”

Other members of the UChicago SHPE chapter who helped facilitate the event include Andrea Diaz, outreach lead; Carlos Medina Jimenez, treasurer; Calixto Mateo Salles, secretary; and Max Topel, external vice president.

The event was sponsored by AbbVie, the Chicago Quantum Exchange, Duality, IBM quantum, UChicago’s Office of Civic Engagement, Pritzker Molecular Engineering’s Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion initiative, and the National Science Foundation’s Materials Research Science and Engineering Centers (MRSEC) program.