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From cities and townships across Southeast Michigan, 160 fourth through sixth grade children streamed arrived at University of Michigan Chemistry Building on a Saturday morning in March to get some hands-on experience with chemistry through a program called FEMMES. These students came to Ann Arbor to spend a day on the U-M campus for a day that featured demonstrations of scientific topics. Graduate students and researchers talked with them about their research.
The very next day, Forsythe Middle School hosted a Young Scientists’ Expo (YSE), where middle schoolers showed off their science projects while visiting a host of demonstration stations featuring scientists performing experiments or explaining a research topic.
These two outreach events, occurring within 16 hours of one another, were organized by two different University of Michigan student groups. Both events, however, featured many Chemistry PhD students who volunteered to make these events a success. The Chemistry Department was a proud sponsor of both events.
“Our department is delighted to support outreach events such as FEMMES and the Young Scientist's Expo for many reasons,” explains Professor Robert Kennedy, Chair of the Chemistry Department. “These events help with communicating to the broader public--through the parents, teachers, and children involved-- what science is about and what we do here at the university.”
F.E.M.M.E.S. - Saturday, March 16
F.E.M.M.E.S., which stands for Women+* Excelling More in Math Engineering and the Sciences, was founded in 2006 at Duke University by Vicki Weston, an undergraduate student. When she attended the University of Michigan for Medical School, she established a chapter in Ann Arbor. Weston saw an opportunity to help close gender and racial divides in STEM fields, and target diverse, underserved women+ populations to provide support and visibility. While the ongoing mission of the group has been to provide female-to-female mentorship opportunities, the organization does not turn away interested participants or volunteers on the basis of sex, gender, gender identity, or gender expression. The program has grown in its 8 years of existence, using buses to transport participants to Ann Arbor from underserved communities. *Formerly the first word was 'Females’ and was later changed to ‘Women+’ to be more inclusive to both participants and volunteers.
“The Chemistry Department is one generous sponsor of the event and provides access to classrooms and teaching labs for the Capstone event,” Alexandra Sun explained. A fourth-year Organic Chemistry PhD Candidate in the Stephenson research group, Sun is the Graduate Vice President of the FEMMES organization. She became involved in FEMMES by performing a demonstration with her research group, and she has served on the executive board for one year.
A typical F.E.M.M.E.S. Capstone day begins at the U-M Chemistry building, where the participants eat a nutritious breakfast. Volunteers wear special T-shirts so that participants can identify their group leaders and program organizers with ease. The students listen to a captivating Keynote Speaker, who talks about her work as a scientist and how she became interested in her career. Then, the participants are broken up into groups and go off to different labs and classrooms by graduate and undergraduate students in STEM areas who have volunteered to be Group Leaders . They participate in lessons and demonstrations, which are led by student organizations and research groups across a wide variety of fields from the U-M campus.
The Chemistry department is well represented in this outreach effort, with eight chemistry graduate or undergraduate students serving on the FEMMES executive board. Three chemistry research groups (Mapp, Schindler, and Stephenson) worked together to show students how to make Liquid Nitrogen Ice Cream (tasting encouraged!), while the Montgomery lab students performed a Molecule Mania activity, where they get to learn about the molecules in their everyday lives.
In addition to the large F.E.M.M.E.S. Capstone event held twice per year, the group participates in after-school activities which are held at middle schools across Southeast Michigan. The organization will also be piloting a F.E.M.M.E.S. Connect program, which will match seventh grade students with women graduate students. They also plan to start a program similar to the Capstone day, where high school students are brought to U-M to participate in a day of learning and a panel on college as a STEM student.
Sun explained how personally enriching F.E.M.M.E.S. can be for graduate or undergraduate students who volunteer with the program. “It’s great to be able to get out of lab and interact with students from many different programs across the university, and I like interacting with the participants. It’s a great opportunity to mentor students and share my story in a relaxed environment and help them gain more of an interest in these topics.”
Young Scientists’ Expo: Sunday, March 17
The Young Scientists’ Expo (YSE) is sponsored by the Association for Women in Science (AWIS) at the University of Michigan. This was the second annual running of the event. The expo is a combination of a traditional science fair, with students displaying posters on a project, and an interactive day with demonstrations that brings the community together. The demonstrations are done in a collaborative setting, and scientists from University of Michigan departments and the Communication Fellows from the University of Michigan Museum of Natural History Science provide interactive opportunities for the members of the community to engage in science. The YSE showcased the work of nearly 100 students and more than 350 visitors participated in the day’s events.
Forsythe Middle School has a diverse population of students who attend the school. Some students do not have the opportunity to engage in science activities outside of their school day. For this reason, the outreach arm of AWIS provides sustained and repeated mentorship leading up to the YSE event. Twice per week for five total weeks in December, January, and February, a group of U-M students visit Forsythe after school to help the middle schoolers plan and perform their projects. During each mentoring session with the middle schoolers, a student group or AWIS volunteer demonstrates a scientific topic, such as electrochemistry or mass spectrometry. The Chemistry Department is well represented, with Sarah Fantin, a Chemistry PhD student, serving on the AWIS executive board, and 9 Chemistry PhD students volunteering as mentors and visiting Forsythe as a part of the after school program.
Additionally, AWIS and the sponsors of the event fund all costs of the middle schoolers’ projects and posters for presentation, helping to keep the program accessible to all middle schoolers who wish to participate. “AWIS is so grateful for the support that we've received from the Chemistry department,” explained Anna Michmerhuizen, the Director of Outreach from the AWIS Executive board. The costs of experiments and demonstrations can be prohibitive to involvement from lower income middle schoolers and volunteers, so the funds raised allow all students to participate if they are interested. Michmerhuizen mentioned that “this helps the visitors engage in science and encourage participation in STEM activities.”
Fantin, an AWIS Lead YSE Mentor and a member of the Ruotolo research group, explained that she got involved with the program after looking for a meaningful way to make an impact through in-depth outreach programs. “My favorite part of this whole YSE experience has been watching how smart and creative middle school students can be… I was blown away by their natural ability to be great scientists.”
“As a bioanalytical chemist,” Fantin said, “it’s exciting to get out and spread the word that there is more to chemistry than Erlenmeyer flasks and explosions.”
Professor Kennedy amplified this sentiment. “If we can foster interest in and understanding of science or higher education with the target audience by these events, then it is also part of our mission to educate," he said. "I think it is also incredibly valuable for the university students and faculty who participate. It is invigorating and motivating to experience the enthusiasm of the younger students that participate and undoubtedly we learn from them through the interactions.”