Hundreds of local high schoolers get a glimpse at life as a scientist during STEM Day at Brown

The annual event, which features a day of interactive workshops and experiments on College Hill, helps high schoolers explore the fundamentals of science and learn about college access.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Early on a Tuesday morning in a third-floor laboratory in Brown University’s geochemistry building, small groups of Providence-area high school students were met with an odd set of tools to solve a tricky biomedical engineering challenge.

The task centered around pieces of rigatoni with spray cheese stuffed inside. The whimsical combination replicates a real and scary medical situation that patients face — a clogged artery. The challenge for the students was to turn simple materials like pipe cleaners, cocktail umbrellas and wire into a surgical tool prototype that could remove the cheese.

Following a brief introduction, the teams got to work showing off their engineering prowess — and, even more importantly, getting some lighthearted exposure to what it’s like to solve problems like a scientist.

“One of the things I want to do in the future is either study medicine or make medical tools for people so this [experience] fits in nicely,” said David Barrientos-Pineda, a 10th grader at Mount Pleasant High School in Providence. “In chemistry and engineering, when I do hands-on things, it kind of gives me the idea of what it would be like to work with real tools.”

In nearby Brown classrooms and laboratories, about a dozen other creative science sessions were happening at the same time. Topics ranged from making cold packs using chemical reactions, to examining integrated circuits that make cell phones and DNA sequencing machines work, designing video games, and exploring gravity and black holes.

All were part of the return of STEM Day at Brown, an annual event led by the Department of Chemistry where local high schoolers come to College Hill for a day of hands-on STEM workshops and experiments.

This year, almost 200 students from Mount Pleasant High School, Central High School, 360 High School and TIMES2 Academy in Providence, as well as Johnston Senior High School, flooded out from a fleet of yellow school buses onto campus on Tuesday, Jan. 24, for the first STEM Day since 2020.

The day was marked by laughs and shouts of excitement as the high schoolers explored campus buildings and learned about careers in engineering, public health, chemistry, physics and mathematics. The students also connected with Brown undergraduates and graduate students concentrating in STEM fields to learn about the college search process, admissions, academics and campus life.

“So many of [our students] have this abstract idea of what a college looks like and what being in a college lab or being in a college room is like,” said Mark Fontaine, a biology and chemistry teacher at TIMES2 Academy who has brought students to STEM Day since it started in 2017. “[Coming to this event] lets them see possibilities. It lets them see opportunities.”

Helping students see what’s possible is the precise reason that Brown chemistry faculty members Jerome Robinson, Brenda Rubenstein and Ou Chen helped get STEM Day off the ground in the first place, they said.

“We were thinking about how we could make a bigger impact in our community,” Robinson said. “The idea was to reach out to students from public schools in Rhode Island, especially in Providence, and provide opportunities to engage them with STEM.”

Ultimately, the faculty wanted the young students to see scientists as approachable people and build an appreciation for the fact that they could become scientists as well, Rubenstein added.

“I grew up in an area that, in some sense, was a STEM desert,” she said. “I’m very much committed to showing people these opportunities, because I recognize how valuable it is to be exposed to these ideas and how it could change their lives.”

The experience has also been valuable for high school teachers, who have often connected with Brown faculty members and students to form partnerships that extend well beyond the initial event and can lead to mentoring opportunities, small grants and even donations of equipment. Last year, for instance, Robinson and other colleagues sent surplus materials from their labs to Central High School after connecting with a chemistry teacher at a previous STEM Day.

Engaging with STEM

This year’s STEM Day kicked off with the high school students hearing from Brown faculty, undergraduates and graduate students covering topics like how to choose concentrations and what career paths can look like during college and after graduation.

A number of Brown students spoke during a panel discussion about their own personal paths into STEM. Graduate students Lacie Connelli, Alexander Del Toro, Kimberly Meza and Andres Zambrano talked about being first-generation college students from low-income backgrounds, and shared their experiences with navigating financial aid and being part of historically underrepresented groups in STEM.

“I knew that if I wanted to go college, I was going to have to pay for it on my own,” said Connelli, who was among the first in her family to go to college. “It’s possible to go to college, stay on campus and have that entire experience without any help from your family… A lot of that was actually due to going into STEM, which has a lot of good scholarships.”

Many of the accounts resonated with the local students, who said they could see themselves in the panelists.

“Seeing where they are today, that was very inspiring,” said Tatiana Nyanti, an 11th grader at TIMES2 who will also be a first-generation college student when it comes time for her to enroll.

Students spent the bulk of STEM Day participating in demonstrations and workshops on a variety of science subjects.

At the session simulating the clogged artery, for instance, students immediately started discussing ideas and strategies before deciding on their course of action. Some decided to wrap the pipe cleaner around the umbrella, while others tried to tie it on as a tail to get any last bits of cheese left behind.

Barrientos-Pineda, a member of the group that designed the winning surgical prototype, said the key to their strategy was opening the umbrella before putting it into the rigatoni.

“If you push it through slightly expanded, it will close in and push around the edges,” Barrientos-Pinedas said.

Three Brown graduate students overseeing the challenge led a follow-up discussion about the overall design process in biomedical engineering.

In another session, a group of students from Johnston learned how certain chemical reactions can turn liquids into solids. They mixed together fruit flavors, cold water, a powder-like substance called sodium alginate and a type of salt known as calcium chloride. The reaction produces tiny little gelatin balls called fruit caviar. Students in the session largely mixed traditional fruit flavors, like strawberry and banana, but some of the bolder students mixed in flavors like vanilla Frappuccino and root beer.

In a Tesla coil demonstration, students watched as Brown graduate student Donovan Davino manipulated 2-foot-long sparks of lightning to produce music. The sounds from the electric currents played contemporary hits like “Lucid Dreams” by Juice WRLD and widely recognized classics like “The Imperial March” from "Star Wars." During the "Star Wars" song, Davino held an unconnected tube light in his hand like a lightsaber. The nearby electric currents from the coil turned it on. Students watched eagerly as some nodded along and even whipped out their phones to record the show.

During a break in the music, Davino explained how the device operates in relation to the fundamental physics of electronic circuits.

Throughout the day, the students buzzed with high levels of excitement and engagement around the science buildings, even as the event wound down.

When asked how the trip went, for example, one student from 360 Academy, who was clad in newly acquired Brown swag, loudly shouted: “It was lit!”