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A field trip that changes lives: RTP Expo exposes students to STEM

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I have been to The Frontier in Research Triangle Park before. It’s a co-sharing office space where tech startups and entrepreneurs base their operations. It’s full of millennials working casually in jeans, typing away on their laptops, and coordinating with their co-workers plans for taking over the world… in a good way.

But when I showed up at The Frontier on April 22nd, I was greeted by an altogether different sight.

Roughly 600 kids from around 13 counties crowded the usually quiet building, chattering away as they waited for the day’s events to get started. That event they were waiting for was RTP’s 2nd Annual Spring STEM Expo, a gathering that brings together STEM — Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics — experts in an attempt to get children enthused about entering fields related to those subjects.

Julie Terry, the marketing and special projects manager for Research Triangle Park, filled me in on the day’s event.

After Brett Brenton, director of US2020 RTP, got the kids pumped up for the day in his inspirational pep talk at 9:45, the kids would be divided into groups. Some would wander outside where a full-blown Food Truck Rodeo would introduce them to some of the great food area chefs have to offer. Others would gather in another room, where STEM experts would explain their pathways into their respective professions. Upstairs, a gathering of companies would show the kids many of the job possibilities for people in the STEM field. In yet another room, the kids could work on citizen science projects with STEM professionals.

I asked Terry why the big investment in these kids and this kind of opportunity. The answer was pretty simple. One, there are just a huge number of STEM professionals in Research Triangle Park. And two, it’s important for young students to think seriously about these fields.

“The idea is to expose those kids to as many of these ideas as possible,” she said.

She also added that she wanted the kids to think about all the possible jobs they could pursue in life.

“Maybe I can be an artist or a writer,” she said. “But I can also be an engineer or a coder.”

In the room where STEM professionals talked about their career pathways, the children listened to a speaker who told them about using video cameras to document scientific information about wildlife. Later, I watched the children sit entranced as a robotics team showed the kids a basketball wielding robot. Eventually, I would also find my way to a room where a crowd learned first-hand about drones.

Here’s the drone:

Here’s the basketball wielding robot:

Upstairs, groups like Duke University, Fidelity, and Cisco showed off their capabilities. And there were others, too. Multiple tables let the children try out virtual reality gear.

A student trying out virtual reality at the Expo (Photo Credit: Alex Granados)
A student trying out virtual reality at the Expo (Photo Credit: Alex Granados)

Courtney Bachman, an intern at Repower Our Schools — a coalition of non-profits and individuals who want to have solar power in schools — taught kids about the process of collecting solar power.

“Who better to talk to about solar power and get excited about solar power than students themselves?” she asked.

Courtney Bachman, an intern at Repower Our Schools (Photo Credit: Alex Granados)
Courtney Bachman, an intern at Repower Our Schools (Photo Credit: Alex Granados)

Natacha Janvier-Derilus of NC Central University’s BRITE Program — which trains students to become research scientists — had a “gel loading station,” complete with little beakers and the pipettes scientists use to put substances in them. She was teaching children how they worked.

The Expo was part of US2020 RTP, which pairs students with STEM mentors. Janvier-Derilus said that her organization is partners with US2020 RTP, and that partnership has been vital.

“We’re able to actually reach more students and actually let them know how fun science is,” she said.

Natacha Janbier-Derilus of NC Central University's BRITE Program (Photo Credit: Alex Granados)
Natacha Janbier-Derilus of NC Central University’s BRITE Program (Photo Credit: Alex Granados)

Roaming around the event, I had a thought that I’ve had many times in the past year or so as I’ve explored schools and programs centered around children: I really wish I had some of these opportunities when I was a student.

Alex Granados

Alex Granados is senior reporter for EducationNC.