VCU Students open Hopewell grade schoolers' eyes to science at STEAM Day

March 15, 2022

Photo of VCU Faculty and Students for STEAM Day

At a table in the cafeteria of Patrick Copeland Elementary School in Hopewell, a student sticks his hand in red fizzing volcano slime. “It feels like eggs, like scrambled eggs!” he tells his fellow fourth-graders. Across the table, Virginia Commonwealth University chemistry majors Zach Korff and Vashti Hall — Hall donning a periodic table T-shirt — stir a mixture of baking soda, vinegar, saline solution and glue to create another batch of slime.

“You can touch it,” Christiana Leiding, a VCU senior majoring in chemistry, tells one of the same students who’d called the slime “gross” moments earlier as she and another fourth-grader poke at the “bouncing egg,” an egg soaked in vinegar that, Leiding explains, takes on new properties — bounciness — through osmosis.

“Science is ‘gross,’” Leiding said with a grin. “I mean, I’m doing research in a lab right now and we are working with bacteria and it’s smelly, but it’s still super fascinating, and I think being enthusiastic when you can tell these students are getting excited about it makes a big difference.”

Leiding, the president of VCU’s student affiliates chapter of the American Chemical Society, was one of several VCU students spending Monday — their first day of spring break — at STEAM Day, sharing the wonders of science, technology, engineering, the arts and math with third-, fourth- and fifth-graders at Patrick Copeland Elementary. With more than a dozen experiments available in the cafeteria, the experience gave the 300-plus children a glimpse at what the future might hold if they consider a career in a STEAM field.

"It's fun because it shows them it’s not magic; it's math. It shows them that there's more to math than just a thousand problems."

Kristina Anthony, Ph.D., an assistant professor of mathematics, volunteering at STEAM Day
“A lot of what they’re doing actually connects with their [Standards of Learning exams] so giving them the ability to have this hands-on interaction — it brings it home so that’ll be something they don’t forget,” said Elona Johnson, a third-grade teacher at Patrick Copeland Elementary watching her students learn about circuits. “When they get exposed to this, their kinesthetic and their tactile abilities now connect to what they’ve been hearing in class to see, ‘Oh, I can actually do this.’ It’s a great thing because then the light bulb comes on for some of the kids who might not get that consistently in the classroom.”

Led by LaChelle Waller, Ph.D., director of undergraduate advising and research in the Department of Chemistry, the group of volunteers included VCU students — many from the university’s student chapter of the American Chemical Society — and faculty from the departments of chemistry and mathematics and applied mathematics in VCU’s College of Humanities and Sciences. The American Chemical Society Virginia Section also provided materials and support, with volunteers from the professional chapter in attendance, including Kristine Smetana, Ph.D., the community activities chair who earned her Ph.D. through VCU’s Department of Chemistry.

Waller said STEAM Day is a chance for VCU students to understand the needs of kids in other schools outside of Richmond, where her department’s students often spend time in the classroom, and for them to give younger students an opportunity to see what science can really be like.

“That’s the best part about partnering with the teachers and the students here [at Patrick Copeland Elementary] is getting them excited, and seeing our VCU students, in this leadership position, lead the activities and volunteer their time to be here today — on their first day of spring break — is always exciting for me,” Waller said.

While Waller has been leading STEAM Day for several years through a nonprofit she runs, it was the VCU group’s fifth year holding STEAM Day in a school outside of Richmond and the second time hosting it at Patrick Copeland Elementary after a visit in 2020.

STEAM Day at Patrick Copeland Elementary is an experience that stuck with fifth-grader Madison, who said she wants to be a scientist when she grows up. On Monday, she was thrilled to have a keepsake from the day, a bouncy ball she made at one station using borax, glue and water. “Not only was it fun,” she said, “but I get to play with something when I get home.”

Madison said she remembered STEAM Day in 2020 when she was in third grade, and her favorite activity then was the “mind-reading” exercise, where Kristina Anthony, Ph.D., an assistant professor of mathematics, used basic addition to guess the number in students’ heads as they answered whether their number appeared on five different grids of numbers.

“It’s fun because it shows them it’s not magic; it’s math,” Anthony said. “It shows them that there’s more to math than just a thousand problems.”

STEAM Day is not the only VCU effort that engages elementary school students around science. Mychal Smith, Ph.D., an assistant professor of chemistry, has his students sharing experiments every week this semester with fifth-graders at J.L. Francis Elementary School in Richmond through his Chemistry in the Community course.

“Normally when you take a science course at VCU, there’s a lab component. This is their lab,” said Smith, who also coordinates VCU’s Project SEED summer program for local high school students to engage in hands-on college-level research. “We go to their classroom and do different types of experiments. And we relate their experiments directly to their SOLs, to try to do things like create a balloon car and talk about motion and force and friction.”

Samantha Dua, a senior majoring in medical laboratory sciences at the VCU College of Health Professions, and her friend Sarah Plutkis showed off their “magical dancing corn” experiment with baking soda, water and vinegar as one third-grader exclaimed, “Why are the bubbles picking up the corn? That’s so weird!”

Dua said volunteering at STEAM Day, which is open to any VCU student with an interest in STEAM, reminds her of the importance of having role models in science like her parents — both nurses — were for her.

“Some kids can be discouraged about joining [a STEAM field] because they think it’s too difficult for them or it’s something that’s too far away from their experience, especially those that don’t have family members in those fields,” Dua said. “So, this day is about being an example for them to see that you can be like us; you can come to school and do these things. It’s realistic, and it’s also applicable in your life.”