Campus News

Westminster students learn science and engineering can be fun

Science is elementary event.

Liang Qiao, graduate student in chemical engineering, helps a Westminster student make gak, also known as slime. Photo: Nancy J. Parisi


Published January 16, 2014 This content is archived.

“We are doing all kinds of experiments here with the students that we can’t easily do in classrooms. It’s a lot of fun. ”
Liesl Folks, dean
School of Engineering and Applied Sciences

More than 50 kindergartners from Westminster Community Charter School filed into Davis Hall on Wednesday.

Soon after, the children huddled around Mark Swihart, professor of chemical and biological engineering. He explained that engineers make big things, such as buildings and bridges, as well as small items like cellular phones. He pointed out laboratories, including the Davis Hall clean rooms, where engineers work. He then gave the children rides on a makeshift hovercraft powered by a leaf blower.

Yeah, it was that kind of field trip.

The children squealed “awesome” and other words of excitement as they cruised around the first floor hallway in the hovercraft. Upstairs, Jim Jenson, professor of civil, structural and environmental engineering, helped the children learn the principle of buoyancy by building aluminum foil boats. They added paperclips until the boats, resting in a water tank, sank to the bottom.

The activities are part of a larger National Grid-sponsored program with UB and Westminster to stimulate student interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), and to encourage their curiosity in the world around them.

Studies have shown that the United States lags behind other countries in STEM education. Faculty and students at UB, as well as partners like National Grid, are working to combat that pattern by hosting engineering camps, volunteering in public schools and other activities.

The field trip described above, part of a program that aims to bring every Westminster students to UB for hands-on STEM activities at least once a year, is the latest example of that. UB and National Grid also partnered with Science is Elementary, a California-based nonprofit, to bring scientists and engineers to Westminster classrooms once a month to do structured, hands-on science experiments that are aligned with the Common Core curriculum. It starts with kindergarten and first-grade classes this semester and expands to higher grades each school year.

“We are doing all kinds of experiments here with the students that we can’t easily do in classrooms,” said Liesl Folks, dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, who serves on the board of advisers for Science is Elementary. “It’s a lot of fun.”

For example, Pierre Gautreau, who last semester earned a PhD in computational engineering mechanics and will start as an adjunct professor this semester in the Department of Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering, demonstrated to fourth-graders on Tuesday how liquid nitrogen works. He showed the students how everyday items like a penny or flower instantly freeze when dipped into the liquid nitrogen.

In addition to Folks, Jenson, Swihart and Gautreau, other volunteer leaders include Charles “Chuck” Mitchell, SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor in Department of Geology and associate dean for sponsored research in the College of Arts and Sciences (CAS); Kimberly Greenfield, CAS associate dean for strategic programs; Kevin Burke, SEAS co-director of undergraduate education and teaching assistant professor in electrical engineering; and Kris Schindler, teaching assistant professor in computer science and engineering.

At least 60 graduate students and numerous faculty and staff in SEAS and CAS are participating in, or helped to organize, the field trips.

This is first year of the multiyear partnership with Westminster and UB expects to bring the students to campus at least once a year.


From the picture provided you can really see the enthusiasm on their faces.


Peter V. Quinn

Excellent outreach effort. Great job!


Deborah Moore-Russo

The Westminster students had a blast!  They went home telling their parents about liquid nitrogen, static electricity and hovercraft rides in the hallways.  Thanks to Liesl Folks and her wonderful staff. We can't wait to see you next month.


Steven Koch