Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at Illinois

High school girls discover ChBE during GAMES Camp

From extracting DNA from strawberries, to making silly putty, to operating lab equipment, the 24 high school girls who participated in the Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering GAMES (Girls’ Adventures in Math, Engineering, and Science) camp this summer 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. 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.

Extracting DNA from strawberries.

Director of the Chemical Engineering GAMES camp, Assistant Professor Diwakar Shukla, and a team of students from his lab led a number of activities, such as making foaming face wash. 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 & Champaign Sanitary District’s waste water treatment facility.

Although Shukla and his students led several activities, he explained 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.”

Using enzymes to clean.

Most of these faculty activities usually consisted of a short lecture about a subject, then a hands-on activity related to it. 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 taught and led an activity about computational games.

“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,” Shukla said.

Shukla has been actively working to increase the number of women in STEM.

Learning how the pump equipment works.

“Since I came to Illinois, 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?

“Yes, they are all very curious,” he said. “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.