National Grid partners with SEAS to bring science to life

K-8 students from Westminster Community Charter School engage in STEM activities at UB

Young children look down from balcony in Davis Hall.

Look out below! Third graders from Westminster Community Charter School drop their parachutes from the second floor of Davis Hall.

by Nicole Capozziello

Published March 4, 2022

Students, faculty, and staff passing through Davis Hall may have had to look out for parachutes dropping from above last month, when 500 local elementary and middle schoolers came to campus for the annual STEM Visit Days event.

“Students see that science is all around them. It's always nice to hear our students say ‘Science is fun! I want to be a scientist when I grow up!’"
Cathy Searight Barnes, Kindergarten teacher
Westminster Community Charter School

The program brought students from Westminster Community Charter School to the University at Buffalo campus for wide variety of STEM activities led by engineering and applied sciences students, faculty and staff, through a partnership with National Grid. Each grade, from K-8, had their own day of activities during the event, which ran for three weeks, from January 11-26, 2022.

“The STEM visits have a huge impact on Westminster students because they get a chance to see what is beyond their classroom experience and get a better understanding of continued education at a university, in person,” says Christina Escobar, associate director of outreach programs for the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. “Several teachers stated that this year was especially important for the students because it was the first time they had been out for a field trip in two years, and the experience helped their morale overall.”

Students participated in hands-on STEM activities geared toward their age group. Hovercraft rides were an all-time favorite with the younger children, who also made a penny launcher and slime. Older elementary students interacted with an augmented reality sandbox and table top shake table, as well as crafted solar-powered lanterns. Middle school students took a campus tour, participated in an electrolysis of water activity, and built wind turbines.

Yaa Achampong, a junior biomedical engineering student and STEM Visit Days volunteer, loved watching the kids take part in an activity that involved coding a miniature robot to go through a maze. “Everyone was so excited seeing the little bot move around. One girl in particular went beyond the activity and created her own route with the codes and that inspired the other kids to do the same. It was cool seeing their creativity being expressed in that way,” she says.

About 70 students, faculty and staff in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences volunteered over the two weeks of visits. In particular, Todd Snyder of the Department of Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering ran the augmented reality sandbox, Mark Swihart, SUNY Distinguished Professor and chair of the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering ran the electrolysis of water activity and Frank Lagor, assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, led a tour of the Aeronautics Lab. Amy Moore, SEAS-Online Program Director, Marianne Sullivan, SEAS Special Programs Manager, and Jobaidur Khan, teaching assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, helped with coordinate some of the activities. 

“It was just fun to see where their imaginations led,” says Chloe Miller, a sophomore majoring in biomedical engineering. “It was refreshing to see how younger minds operated in terms of learning about the science behind the activities, and how they approached solving problems, like building the tallest and most stable tower out of crafts materials.”

The annual STEM Visit Days program is part of a larger partnership between National Grid, UB’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and Westminster Community Charter School that started in 2013. During the school year, engineering students volunteer their time to go into classrooms at Westminster and engage young learners in age-appropriate science and engineering lessons.

Steve Pilat, outreach coordinator in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, recruits and trains volunteers and creates and fine-tunes lesson plans that are engaging for a range of grade levels. “Each year the first graders learn about sound and vibration, so we do a specific activity where they make phones out of cups and kazoos out of popsicle sticks and rubber bands. Kids really enjoy it, and it ties directly into the Next Generation Science Standards for first grade,” says Pilat.

“I'm so glad that Westminster and UB have continued to work together, as the students get so excited when they know that the UB scientists are coming,” says Cathy Searight-Barnes, a kindergarten teacher at Westminster. “Students see that science is all around them. It's always nice to hear our students say ‘Science is fun! I want to be a scientist when I grow up!’"

The SEAS outreach team also participates in the SAY YES Saturday Academies activities at multiple schools, including BUILD Community School, Harvey Austin Elementary, Hamlin Park Academy, Futures Academy and Highgate Heights Elementary. The outreach team also hopes to expand the STEM Visit Days to include students from other local schools.