Teenage girls crunch down on chocolate-covered bugs. Chewing slowly, they glance sideways at each other. A boy grabs a few and pops them in his mouth.
“It’s good,” he said. “No, I’m not going to throw up.”
Eating bugs will give you a “burst of energy,” said Carleen Denovchek, with Heifer International.
She listed off ways Heifer promotes bug consumption to address world hunger, like ground insects in baby formula to battle malnutrition.
“You guys eat pizza—tons of bugs in pizza,” she says to the crowd of kids in front of her. The white scarf around her neck is covered in drawings of insects.
She grabs a brown clump and holds it aloft. “This is my cow poop. I asked for a not-stinky one,” she said. “Free energy, people. Burns hotter than wood.”
Heifer International was just one of 40 booths at Arizona STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) Adventure, put on by the Southern Arizona Research, Science and Engineering Foundation, or SARSEF, Last Friday Nov. 17, at Pima Community College Northwest Campus. Over 1,100 kids, in fourth through eighth grade from across the Greater Tucson Metro Area, were eating bugs and building robots. They learned about chemistry by making silly putty, kinetic energy through rubber band propellers and engineering by building with Lego’s.
Across from the Heifer booth, kids put trays of cookie dough into solar ovens. Down the way, students taped popsicle sticks to their fingers and reached into paper bags, trying to identify the contents with “robot fingers.” At the U.S. Department of Agriculture booth, others inspected huge mounted beetles, moths and scorpions.
Science is everywhere, said Kathleen Bethel, CEO of SARSEF.
“It’s everything you’re passionate about,” she said. “It’s so neat to watch the kids overcoming their bais.”
SARSEF has a number of programs designed to increase interest in science among K-12 students, including science-fair competitions through which winners receive scholarships. Arizona STEM Adventure is part of their Educational Outreach Program, which focuses on teaching science to girls, minorities and students in low-income areas.
SARSEF began working on the Outreach Program about seven years ago when Bethel was on the SARSEF Board, before becoming CEO. She realized the majority of scholarship winners were white males when a little girl in the audience said, “Why are all the winners boys?”
The Outreach Program sends educators into low-income schools to show the teachers how to engage kids with science in a variety of disciplines, whether that be social trends, the environment, animals and more.
“Find the area of passion that matters to them,” Bethel said. “If they love fashion, where’s the science in fashion?”
It took a couple years to get the program off the ground, but now students who participate in SARSEF competitions are 54 percent female, 60 percent from Title 1 schools (in low income areas) and 60 percent minorities.
Applying to attend Arizona STEM Adventure is a competitive process, based on a rubric. Teachers write an essay explaining their class’ needs, preparation and plans to follow through after the STEM fair. Points are given based on the essay answers, percentage of females and minorities students and whether they’re low-income schools.
“We’re about getting science into the hands of underrepresented students,” Bethel said.
Schools are selected throughout Southern Arizona, and most districts have a presence at the fair, with anywhere from 15 to 94 kids from one school.
The fair also has a professional-development component for educators. Teachers are given $150 worth of data-collection materials and taught how to use them in the classroom, during a 2-hour training session.
Schools lack funding for many of these items, Bethel said. Teachers leave the training with two goodie bags containing a scale, safety glasses, test tubes, pipettes, tweezer sets, 100-foot measuring tape, infrared thermometer and several other, more crucial items for teaching data collection.
Arizona STEM Adventure has been held at Pima for three years. SARSEF has put on the event for 12, previously at the Tucson Convention Center. Pima contributes the space for the fair, as well as 250 volunteers, costing much less than the TCC. Exhibitors cover costs to run their own booths.
Additionally, Raytheon and IBM donated $10,000 each, which allows SARSEF to spend more on professional development for teachers and sending SARSEF representatives to follow up with schools after the event. The two large companies also sent volunteers and have booths at the STEM fair.
Other contributors, STEMAZing, University of Arizona STEM Learning Center and Agents of STEM, send staff to help with various components of the event.
Another benefit to holding the fair at Pima is that the kids may go to college there. It’s “a nice pipeline,” Bethel said.
“This program teaches us skills we can use in the future,” she said about the STEM fair. “You can decide what you want to do and don’t want to do.”
Bethel wants to see more girls learning coding and other high-tech skills and all kids gaining the expertise to be the next generation of skilled workers for local branches of companies like Caterpillar and Raytheon.
“Let’s make sure Southern Arizona keeps kids interested in science and engineering so they become our future employees, our future workforce,” she said.
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