Virtual STEM expo features Great Dane, rubber band rockets, and beehives

Jan 4, 2021Courtney Morris

When Arili Bedoy was investigating the STEM Undergraduate Research Club, little did she expect to get roped into a video presentation.

The San Jacinto College student reached out to Dr. Sheema Nasir, South Campus STEM coordinator, to learn more about the club.

Virtual STEM expo
STEM student Arili Bedoy demonstrates reward learning with her Great Dane, Lucy.

In turn, Nasir asked her to help with an upcoming virtual STEM expo for second to eighth graders.

Held annually at the Central, North, and South Campuses, the expo was moving to Zoom Nov. 19 because of COVID-19 limitations.

Bedoy ended up being the event's only student presenter. The aspiring medical laboratory scientist created a reward learning video using the perfect lab partner to hook a younger audience: her Great Dane, Lucy.

"The goal was to get students excited about science and pursuing a career in STEM — to get them thinking about how what they're doing now affects their life later," she said.

Creating hands-on across cyberspace

Each fall, San Jac and Communities in Schools of Southeast Harris and Brazoria County co-host three STEM expos featuring faculty-led demonstrations and hands-on activities. Each event can draw up to 500 students and family members from Communities in Schools' after-school programs in Pasadena and Galena Park ISDs.

Because of COVID-19, they reimagined the 2020 expos as one hour-long virtual event with activities students could do at home. Faculty converted their in-person stations into videos.

"We were able to plan via Zoom meetings, and participating faculty either made arrangements to come to campus and record on site, or they made their recordings in their own homes," said Lambrini Nicopoulos, College STEM Council co-chair, who helped coordinate the event.

Nicopoulos created a cloud storage folder where faculty uploaded their videos. Then Communities in Schools embedded these presentations into the event PowerPoint.

Faculty also donated 250 bags with lung model kits, rubber band rocket materials, and College-branded goodies. Parents who registered for the event through their Communities in Schools after-school campus received the supply kits for their kids.

Moving the event online also meant a wider audience than usual could participate, including students from Brazosport, Columbia-Brazoria, and Alvin ISDs.

"This gave those new students exposure to STEM while showcasing another local community college that they might not have known about otherwise," said Cheryl Sellers, director of community relations for Communities in Schools of Southeast Harris and Brazoria County.

Demonstrating "paws-itive" learning

Virtual STEM expo
Biology professor Diep Le shows a healthy lung beside an unhealthy one.

About 180 families logged on to participate in the expo. Faculty also logged on to monitor the chat in case students or parents had questions.

Professors shared a variety of engaging presentations:

  • Diep Le demonstrated the effects of smoking on lungs.
  • Dr. Yuli Pernia showed how to make lungs using a straw, clay, a cup, and balloons.
  • Maxine Lane taught composting with Halloween pumpkins.
  • Natandra Gradney used eggs and different solutions to mimic how water moves in and out of cells.
  • Nate Wiggins and Dr. Connie Gomez showed how 3D printers create prosthetic limbs.
  • Dr. Carrie Owens made a rubber band rocket using a straw, paper clip, staples, rubber band, and paper fins.
  • Dr. Liana Boop suited up to showcase her beehives.

Although used to interacting with students crowded around a table, math professor Neil Jody enjoyed converting his self-similar patterns presentation into something that could engage a virtual audience.

"It was challenging to pre-record what is normally an interactive installation, but going through the process of recording and editing for a non-interactive audience proved fulfilling," Jody said.

In her video, Bedoy showed her dog learning to do a handshake. She connected the reward learning exercise with how dopamine, the feel-good hormone, strengthens memory.

"Reward learning also plays a role in my motivation to do well in school," Bedoy told younger students. "I study and work as hard as I can not only for the good grades but because I know that those good grades will lead me to the true reward I desire, which is to be a successful laboratory scientist."

Since Zoom limited logins, Communities in Schools will replay the PowerPoint during its after-school programs to expand the expo's reach.

Sparking a passion for STEM

While faculty missed interacting with kids face to face, Nicopoulos joked that there was a perk to hosting virtually: "Clean-up was a breeze."

She also sees the next in-person expos including some virtual components.

Bedoy hopes her presentation ignites a STEM flame in younger students who can follow in her footsteps.

"I'm Latina," she said. "I didn't see people like me in careers like this. I wanted students to see I'm doing it — you can do it too."

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