James Madison University

Local Students Explore STEM at Valley Mall

By: Sydney Palese
Posted: April 9, 2013

PHOTO: Students participateThe aroma of mall pretzels drifted overhead as middle school students whipped around on a hovercraft. Droves of shoppers carried their purchases and watched as elementary school students skipped barefoot through goop, made their own lava lamps and built paper towers. High school students expertly dropped Styrofoam in acetone, delighting in the reactions of all who watched as the packing peanuts dissolved to nothing.

These displays were only a few of the engaging, hands-on activities at the Harrisonburg City Public School’s “STEM Day” hosted at Valley Mall on Saturday February 22.

The day, which featured different displays and experiments for K-12 students in Harrisonburg schools, focused on activities that incorporated science, technology, engineering and math, and relied on volunteers from the participating schools as well as James Madison University.

Mallory Draeger, a junior engineering student who helped plan the event, said the day “reaches out to people who wouldn’t have otherwise known about [STEM]. It makes science cool.”

PHOTO: STEM Day activityShe added that having college students present gave middle and high school students the opportunity to see role models in the STEM field, which she said “makes a huge difference.”

Parked outside the mall was the STEM Mobile Learning Lab. Resembling a spacious trailer, the lab was outfitted with three iPads, replica hydrocars that turn water into carbon to power the engines, and a 200x proscope that displayed the fibers in clothing and the crystalline structures of a “black ice” car air freshener on a flat screen monitor. 

Bruce Waller, the STEM Mobile Learning Lab liaison, said the mission is “hands on, minds on,” and emphasizes green technology, wind power, solar power, and nanotechnology. Waller said that everyone must get involved in the activities on the bus, regardless of their age.

Inside the mall, Julie Slifer watched as her daughter Amelia, a second grader at Smithland Elementary, predicted which fruits and vegetables would sink or float in a plastic storage bin of lukewarm water. The activity was part of a series of hands-on experiments, such as “Recycle Regatta” and “Make an Anemometer,” designed for younger children and children with disabilities.

Slifer said her daughter’s school sent emails and texts about the event to parents, and advertised to students.

“[Amelia] is really interested in science and wanted to come,” said Slifer. “It’s really important for her to get excited about science.”

“I’m already excited about science!” Amelia said, after correctly guessing that a green pepper would float in the tub. She enthusiastically added that science is important to her because it’s about “adventure and excitement.”

PHOTO: Colored liquid in glasses“You can guess and predict and you get to learn a lot of things. It doesn’t matter if you’re right or wrong. You’re having fun while learning,” Amelia added.

The rest of the mall looked like one big science fair, with stations manned by students from elementary school to college.

In the center of the mall, a big yellow banner with “Welcome to Stemville” painted in deep blue, stood sturdily over the little town displaying creations called “Tubular Tunnel” and “The Hurd’s Playground.”

Behind the town, families worked together to build houses and playgrounds out of egg cartons, paper towel rolls, coffee filters and recycled 2-liter bottles. The guidelines for each structure were dictated by each grade’s learning standards. Pre-schoolers were guided to “Design and construct a structure for a Community Helper” and fourth graders should try to build a structure for a new community that supports the production of apples, poultry or beef.

Diana Ferguson, an enrichment specialist at Waterman Elementary School, said the “Stemville” display was born at a family night where students and their parents did a similar project.

Ferguson, who works with the STEM program in Harrisonburg City Public Schools, said the program brings advanced learning opportunities to all children, regardless of gifted status. As a result of the program, she said, “ we have seen, students who struggle in academic areas  have the opportunity to experience success and students who shine in academic areas experience some frustration.”

By the end of the afternoon, students had learned about scientific processes and projects from their peers. Annamarie Frost, a senior IDLS major and a volunteer, said events like STEM Day are important for students because “this is how students would understand it more. It’s all about socialization and problem solving.”