STEM Day at Brown brings science to life for local high schoolers

The annual event brings hundreds of students from the Providence area to College Hill for a day of interactive workshops and discussions about science and college access.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Hundreds of local high schoolers were immersed in the world of science as they participated in this year's STEM Day at Brown.

The annual event serves as a gateway for high school students to explore the core principles of science while also offering a snapshot of academic and student life on a college campus. This year’s event took place on a cold late-March morning and included more than 200 students from five high schools across Rhode Island.

Just after 9 a.m., the high schoolers jumped off a fleet of yellow school buses ready for hands-on workshops and thoughtful discussions about what it’s like being a scientist in STEM. Broken up into groups, students spent the bulk of the day interacting with Brown faculty and students, and taking part in 12 science sessions that unfolded simultaneously across various classrooms and laboratories on College Hill.

Each session was structured as mini-lessons — a brief lecture at the start and then a hands-on portion where students got to apply their new insights, seeing what they learned in action and making connections to how the concepts play out in the real world.

“It helped me see that [science] relates to everything,” said 10th grader Cindy Pagan after taking part in a session about gel-like biopolymers. Along with classmates from Central High School in Providence, Pagan learned about the chemical reaction it takes to create these kinds of gels. In this case, the students saw that squishy gel forms when alginic acid is mixed into a calcium ion solution.

“I’d seen something like it in cooking shows, so it got me thinking how science is related to cooking and then beyond that,” Pagan said.

For other students, seeing the chemical reaction was a first. Jaws fell to the floor when the bright green gel formed. Circled around a long table topped with beakers of the mixture, one student declared, “I’m not touching that!” All it took was one student reaching his hand into the beaker and picking up the gel and squishing it with his fingers for everyone to change their minds.

Other sessions included lessons on 3D printers, the molecular composition of crystals, the human brain, optical engineering and removing pollutants from food and water. The sessions were organized by Brown faculty, staff and students who volunteered for the event led by the Department of Chemistry.

In the demonstration on brain science, students from Pilgrim High School in Warwick got a lesson on how neurons in the brain communicate as well as an up-close view at what the brain actually looks like. When asked if anyone wanted to hold a plasticized human brain, 10th grader Dylan Borges was the first to step up.

Reflecting on the event, Borges said STEM Day at Brown is already helping to  solidify his choice to pursue science in college. “It paints college in pretty good light and gets me excited,” he said.

Other schools that took part in the day included the TIMES2 Academy, Dr. Jorge Alvarez High School and Mount Pleasant High School.

The day was not all just hands-on science. At two separate presentations, the high schoolers learned about college admissions, academics and campus life. Together the panels helped demystify some of the college experience like how to choose a concentration or what career paths can look like during school and after graduation. The accounts resonated with the local students, who said they could see themselves in the panelists.

“Seeing these experiences is something that can inspire you to do as well in the future,” said Lourdes Rodriguez, a 10th grader at Central High School.

Sam Caldwell, a community specialist at Mount Pleasant, said experiences like STEM Day are powerful for students. He said that after the workshop on 3D printing — where his students learned about the printing process and watched as the machine in the room printed a tiny frog — one student left inspired by what he saw and talked about having his own 3D printing business one day.

“It can change their lives,” Caldwell said. “It opens up their world to a million possibilities… It shows them that if you work a little harder, you can do a lot of powerful things.”

Brown chemistry faculty members Jerome Robinson, Brenda Rubenstein and Ou Chen started STEM Day in 2017 to provide opportunities for young students to engage with STEM subjects. Since its inception, the event has been a catalyst for forging partnerships between Brown faculty and local high school teachers and students that extend well beyond the initial day itself — often leading to mentoring opportunities, small grants and even donations of equipment.

“It has always been about getting students excited for STEM but also trying to get them in touch with opportunities beyond this day for continuing that passion for STEM,” Robinson said. “I hope that we can continue to grow this and bring in more folks from the Brown community and from local schools. I'd love to see STEM Day keep on expanding with different programs that we might be able to continue throughout the year.”