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Emeka Udenze shows students an experiment

The magic of science

Yakima Valley children get hands-on with science, technology, engineering and math

After a nearly three-year hiatus, YVC’s STEM Day returned this January with a bang. The event brought hundreds of elementary school children and their families to campus for a fun-filled day of hands-on activities introducing them to science, technology, engineering and math.

“STEM Day was a wonderful opportunity for faculty and students to engage with young minds in the Yakima Valley,” said STEM Director Cristy Rasmussen. “The event also helped introduce youth to the Yakima Valley College campus and the exciting world of STEM.”

Among the most popular activities was a screaming gummy bear demonstration in one of YVC’s chemistry labs. Groups of kids accompanied by their parents watched as Chemistry Instructor Emeka Udenze along with student volunteers Eddie Juarez and Carlos Trejo-Perez dropped a gummy bear into a test tube filled with boiling potassium chlorate. The resulting reaction creates a vibrant pink flame  and a scream-like sound.

Lizzy Coryell from OMSI (Oregon Museum of Science and Industry) blows air into a chamber containing candles and lycopodium causing a burst of fire as other kids and families look on at YVC's STEM Day event.

Udenze also showed children three additional experiences including one that demonstrated the process of chromatography by separating the color pigment from an ink dot, another experiment focused on the forming a solid substance and lastly, Udenze demonstrated the chemical reaction caused by combining baking soda and vinegar.

Originally focused on the field of engineering, YVC held its first event bringing local families to campus in 2009. As a way to highlight more programs, the event expanded in 2019 to include the additional activities spanning science, technology and mathematics. According to Engineering Instructor Rajkumar Raj, who planned the inaugural event, the expansion has enabled more YVC students to participate.

“I enjoyed how the kids’ faces would light up during the activities. It’s special getting to be a part of that and sparking an interest in science.” — Kevin Perez, YVC student

For this year’s event, nearly 50 students, faculty and staff helped plan, lead demonstrations or volunteer in other ways. Among the stations, physics students used a bicycle tire to show the conservation of angular momentum while other student volunteers helped kids launch stuffed birds using a homemade slingshot, like a real-life version of the video game Angry Birds. Additional volunteers helped children set up circuit boards, launch straw rockets, build boats, explore topography and build structures using only spaghetti noodles and marshmallows. In addition, criminal justice students help with crowd control and Engineering Club members sold concessions to help fund future club and outreach activities.

The opportunity to work with area youth attracted YVC volunteers like engineering student Kevin Perez, who was one of the students who volunteered at the angular momentum demonstration.

“I enjoyed how the kids’ faces would light up during the activities,” said Perez. “It’s special getting to be a part of that and sparking an interest in science.”

Alumnus Chris Cuevas, who participated in past events as a student volunteer, was excited to return as a community volunteer this year. Cuevas started in YVC’s Running Start program during his junior year, graduated from high school in 2016 and earned his associate in science degree in engineering, feels that YVC’s STEM Day event provides a great opportunity of promoting science as a fun and interesting field.

“I never really experienced STEM Day or any event like it as a child,” said Cuevas. “I think STEM Day does a good job in promoting science as something fun and interesting.”

As someone who struggled with math and science while in elementary and middle school, Cuevas feels events like this are critical to spark children’s interest in those subjects and start developing a belief that they can be successful in those fields.

“I had a really good experience at YVC,” said Cuevas. “I think showing the younger kids how fun and interesting science is will have an impact on students that will hopefully make them gravitate to pursuing a career related to STEM.”

“If you make them interested in STEM … at this age, as they grow up, they will still be interested in it.” — Rajkumar Raj, engineering instructor

A powerful moment for Cuevas came during this year’s event when he saw first-hand that spark of interest develop in student participants.

“I saw a few students this year that seemed uninterested at first but once they got to see the interesting demonstrations their reactions towards science seemed to have changed,” he said. “Not only were the kids enjoying the event, but I saw parents participating on the several demonstrations and they all seemed to have fun. A fun and positive impact will hopefully nurture these young students to be our future engineers, teachers, scientist, etc…which will benefit our community because kids are our future.”

Children watch as Chemistry Instructors Sam Mazhari and Emeka Udenze perform the "Screaming Gummy Bears" experiment.

New partnerships

New this year was a partnership with the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI) and its community outreach program. OMSI brought several interactive stations and puzzles for children and their families to experience.

OMSI Outreach Instructor Lizzy Coryell gave a demonstration on controlled flames using highly flammable cotton and powder. The popular demonstration had clusters of children and families gathered around throughout the day. Coryell said the museum often partners with schools in the greater Portland area, where it is based, but this was the first time it partnered with a college.

Raj stressed that it is critical to engage children in STEM fields while they are young and still curious and imagining what they might be when they grow up. By the time kids get to high school, many of them have already decided on what career path they want to pursue.

“If you make them interested in STEM … at this age, as they grow up, they will still be interested in it,” he said.

In total over 500 students and their families attended the event.

Kandace Griffin, mom of 8-year-old Jaxson and 10-year-old Jacobi, was thrilled with the experience and feels it made a lasting impact on her boys. Griffin attended YVC for a brief time in the early 2000s and also enjoyed the opportunity to share the campus with her children.

“I attended YVC for a short-time, but my children had never been on the YVC campus,” said Griffin. “They were amazed by how big it was.”

Griffin said that since this year was their first time attending the event her family was trying as many of the exhibits and games as they could.

“My boys really liked the chemical reaction demonstration and the animal and nature exhibit most. They also got to experience the campus and see what kinds of things they could study in the science field. But I think the most impactful part was just the interaction with college students and leaders while learning science in a fun way. They loved the event!”

Learn more about YVC’s STEM Pathway.