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High School Girls Discover Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering at GAMES Camp

ChBE GAMES campers extract DNA from strawberries.

September 7, 2017

From extracting DNA from strawberries, to making silly putty, to operating some lab equipment, the 24 high school girls who participated in the Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering (ChBE) GAMES (Girls’ Adventures in Math, Engineering, and Science) camp from Sunday, June 18th through Saturday, June 24th, got to experience a bit of what chemical engineering is like. After hearing mini-lectures about a variety of chemical-engineering-related themes, the girls got to do fun, hands-on activities about the subject—including some things that might appeal to girls—like making foaming face wash, for example. Plus, during field trips, the girls got to see first-hand what a career in chemical engineering might be like. Even more importantly, they were exposed to women in chemical engineering who served as role models..

A camper plays with silly putty she made during a hands-on activity.

Director of the Chemical Engineering GAMES camp, Diwakar Shukla, and a team of students from his lab led a number of activities, such as making foaming face wash on Sunday night. The campers also participated in a number of hands-on activities where they learned about and got a chance to do procedures using some of the lab equipment: they learned about pumps; DNA extraction, during which the girls extracted DNA from strawberries; the polymer extruder; enzymatic cleaning; continuous distillation; and acid rain. Students also took field trips, such as to the Abbott Power Plant and to the Urbana waste water treatment facility.

Professor Diwakar Shukla (center), director of the ChBE GAMES camp, interacts with two students doing an activity about using enzymes to clean.

Although Shukla and his students led several activities, he explains that he was just coordinating the ChBE GAMES camp and had lots of help from his colleagues. “The best part has been that nearly half of the faculty in our department—they decided to do a one-and-a-half-hour activity about their own lab…I'm just an organizer who is making sure the schedules are fixed and everything is in place.”

ChBE professor Flaherty interacts with high schoolers during his session on catalysis.

Most of these faculty activities usually consisted of a short lecture about a subject, then a hands-on activity related to it. So during the course of the week, the students learned about polymers and recycling from Dr. Sing & Dr. Guironnet; Dr. Kong taught about biotransportation, then he and his students led a hydrogel activity. Dr. Diao and her students taught about “Crystals All Around Us,” then led a crystal-making activity. Dr. Flaherty and his grad students taught about catalysis, surface science, and materials science, then led an activity on catalysis. Dr. Kraft and her students did an activity that involved making gold nanoparticles, which are used for immunoelectron microscopy. And finally, Shukla and his team also taught and led an activity about computational games.

In his first year as Director of the ChBE GAMES camp, Diwakar Shukla explains why he got involved with the project.

“I really enjoy teaching undergraduates and you know, this is even a lower level than undergrads. So there are always a lot of interesting questions, and it’s a lot of fun to teach them basic scientific ideas and get them curious about chemical engineering and, in general, engineering and STEM fields.”

Since the ChBE GAMES camp was for girls, it is apropos that Shukla and a team of students from his lab were integrally involved…he appears to recognize the need and has been actively working to increase the number of women in STEM.

Two students participate in an enzymatic cleaning activity.

“Since I came to Illinois” he acknowledges, “I have always tried to take at least one female student in my group every year, as a graduate student, which is very difficult for a computational group. So at this point, my lab has five female students doing computer science and biology and chemical engineering.”

Did Shukla see any future chemical engineers in the group of high schoolers?

Two campers work with a polymer tube as part of the polymer extruder hands-on activity.

“Yes, they are all very curious,” he says. “They're already talking about what type of courses they can take and credit transfers. So they're asking very detailed questions about the program already. Some of them have clearly made up their mind that they will apply to an engineering school. But there are others who are freshmen, so they are really exploring.”

Story and photos by Elizabeth Innes, Communications Specialist, I-STEM Education Initiative.

ChBE GAMES camper making silly putty during the catalysis hands-on activity.

More: 8-12 Outreach, ChBE, GAMES, Summer Camp, Women in STEM, 2017

For additional I-STEM articles about G.A.M.E.S. camp, see:

During the Pumps activity, a ChBE student (center) explains to campers how some of the lab's pumping equipment works.