Sunday, October 5, 2014

Undergrads, bribed by nice catering, volunteer to talk to smart kids about their research

This Saturday, I ate this very delicious box of food.*  A more accurate statement - I started eating this delicious box of food on Saturday for lunch, took home a second box, finished the first box for dinner on Saturday, and then ate the second box for lunch and dinner on Sunday.

An even more accurate statement - I attended this event that you see advertised, at which these delicious boxes of catered sandwiches were served.

On Monday, our PI and a grad student got a few of us undergrads to volunteer for something we in lab just called Biomechanics Outreach Day, and that's more or less how I'll refer to it. I jumped in at the last second because the grad student organizing it realized that the best way to entice undergrads to do something is free food, and because I realized that Yom Kippur and Eid took out a chunk of potential volunteers, and as I don't celebrate either, I felt more or less obligated to help out.**

The event itself was put on by the Johns Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth (CTY), which is apparently pretty large of an organization. The event consisted of four groups of kids (eighth to tenth grade?) and their parents, each spending about 45 minutes at each of the biomechanics labs in our building. There were two such rotations, lunch, then two more. What our lab ended up doing was putting the undergrads upstairs in a classroom with an activity for the kids and a mini-lecture of what we do, then having the grad students downstairs in the lab to demo one of our pieces of heavy machinery.

I was a bit apprehensive going into this event. I spent my high school specifically avoiding any sort of 'gifted and talented' money-shelling opportunities (save one), and so I and my lab pals sort of anticipated some arrogance from know-it-all teenagers and their pushy parents. In some ways, this did pan out.

The Good

Some of the younger ones (seventh and eighth grade) got really into the activity. They were the ones who hadn't yet taken physics, and had the most raw, enthusiastic interest in our research, a brand new topic for them. Science is cool! Engineering is cool! We tried to ply them all with questions to try to get their gears turning, and they played along. They got involved, asked their own questions, and brought me back to their age when I was just beginning to enjoy science and math.

I anticipate this will be something I talk about a lot on this blog, this whole concept of STEM education, particularly for little girls. The day had a pretty even split of boys and girls, and if 13 year old me had the opportunity to go tour four research labs at UC Berkeley, I'd be pretty damn excited. The mechanical engineering department is a fairly genial department anyways, pretty kid-friendly, and we undergrads really did try to be as engaging as possible. At lunch, we all reflected on how off our predictions were, and that we really did have fun.

The Bad

Some of the older ones were arrogant know-it-alls. Our activity was fairly simplistic at first glance, but they really didn’t try after their initial answers were wrong.

We wanted to eat lunch inside because it was blazing hot outside. The program director had us undergrads sit outside and mingle with the attendees, but once we saw one lab's grad students clump up together, then another lab's grad students clump up together, we naturally found our own spot and cliqued up. That was pretty bad on our part.

The Ugly

A mom asked me why I didn't go to UCSD because their bioengineering program is ranked higher (forgetting that my lab is technically a mechanical engineering department and that UCSD and Berkeley's programs are ridiculously different). She then asked me why I didn't go to JHU and then why I got rejected. She then asked me my SAT scores.

A dad asked us why we all did research if we only got units for two semesters.

Long story short

I had a good time volunteering at the CTY event. It was unexpectedly fun for me and the other undergrads - four of us at any given time, not sure how the pair of grad students held up - and we had a great time interacting with some pretty sharp kids that were, for the most part, interested in our research. It was a welcome, refreshing change to talk about our research, which is old hat stuff for us at this point, our day-to-day routines, with people who were genuinely awestruck by it, who had no idea what biomechanics research could mean for medical technology, who were eager to learn about it from us and after they left our campus. This event renewed my commitment to spreading the STEM love, and my enthusiasm for my own work.

I'm damn lucky to be where I am, doing what I find cool, what my 13 year old self would have found cool.

* Lunch included: roast beef and pesto sandwich, potato chips, huge cookie, salad. This is substantially better than what undergrads normally get to eat.

** On the same day, this was happening on Sproul Plaza. Excuse me while I vomit.

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