STEM Expo at William Jessup University

Placer County event was not your traditional school science fair
By: Anne Stokes, Placer Herald Correspondent
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Nearly 300 students participated in the second annual Placer County STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) Expo held on Saturday at William Jessup University. An alternative to the traditional school science fair, fourth- through 12th grade students were invited to use their own brand of creativity to design projects that generate solutions. “We call it the innovative alternative to the typical science fair,” explained event coordinator Dr. Eric Bull, an associate professor at William Jessup. “We do that because typically a science fair has one category. That’s scientific inquiry, which is hypothesis and procedure, and all that. Many youth can’t get their heads wrapped around that concept, he continued. “A lot of people have bad memories of the science fair. It’s something they had to do, and their parents ended up doing most of it,” Dr. Bull said. “We wanted to increase scientific literacy in a sneaky way. And so we created seven categories that the kids get to self-select.” The seven categories included a few traditional paths as well as the tried-and-true scientific inquiry, including invention and robotic engineering. But, the STEM Expo also offers young scientists a chance to try their hands at environmental innovation, reverse engineering, writing science fiction, or creating a Rube Goldberg machine, a complicated device that accomplishes a simple task in a complex way, “like the game mousetrap,” explained Bull. Along with the lessons in creativity and innovation, event organizers want student participants to discover realistic career options. “Our judges are all working professionals,” said Thomas Toy, fifth-grade science teacher at Twelve Bridges Elementary school in Lincoln. “We wanted the kids to have an authentic connection to somebody who is an expert in that field. And I think the kids walk away saying, ‘Wow, my project made a difference, I was able to get it out to the public. I was able to share it with somebody who really cares, who is an expert in their field.’ “It’s almost like a career workshop for students,” Toy continued. “And in this age of challenging job environment, that’s going to be the key to success — that they know how to access information. They know how to get their ideas heard or share their ideas and get feedback.” Bull hopes to involve the community in future STEM Expos. “Our next step is to involve businesses, and community members to come in and participate as mentors or as workshop leaders,” he said. “Like having a published author come in and do a workshop for kids to say, ‘this is how I got into it, and this is how you write.’ “ Bull would also like to develop workshops for teachers and parents who could “work with their kids to bring about creativity and innovation without turning them off.” But the process requires time and money, he noted. Currently, the Expo is in the hands of an all-volunteer, four-person board of directors. “The one thing I’m looking for would be somebody who would join our board and participate with us,” he said. “Right now we have two funders for this event. [William Jessup] University provides us this spot and my credit card pays for the rest. So why don’t we have somebody paying for this? Well, we don’t have the manpower to go out and ask. So that’s our hope — to find somebody to champion the cause.”