Illinois I-mark

Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering

“Girls Rock!”

“Yes we do!”

Before their morning lecture and again in the afternoon before they make catalysts, a group of high school girls respond to the traditional call-out for participants in the GAMES (Girls’ Adventures in Mathematics, Engineering and Science) Camp.

GAMES Camp is a weeklong program designed to provide academically talented high school girls with opportunities to explore a variety of engineering and scientific fields. Several different tracks are offered in addition to chemical engineering, such as bioengineering, computer science, aerospace engineering, and others.

Soon-to-be high school senior Allison Cvec had planned to apply to the University of Illinois this fall and was considering majoring in chemical engineering. But she was on the fence. Before she made a decision, she figured she’d spend a week at the camp this summer to learn about what the field entails.

By the end of her first day at GAMES Camp in Chemical Engineering, she texted her dad, “This is what I want to do.”

“I absolutely love it. I’m all in now,” she said about Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at Illinois.

The first days of the camp entailed learning about optimization and mass production, playing computational games, learning about catalysis and surface chemistry and nanoparticles for drug delivery, creating shower gel, extracting DNA and much more. In addition to spending time on campus, the group also tours regional chemical plants. It’s a week packed with lectures and lab time and culminates with a closing ceremony.

“I am amazed at how creative, knowledgeable and curious the girls are,” said Assistant Professor Ying Diao, who joined the Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering faculty in January this year. She shared with the girls her knowledge about crystal types, how crystals are born and the science behind chocolate, specifically cocoa butter, which crystallizes into several different crystal forms.

“I felt the unquenchable thirst for knowledge in them which makes me full of hope for future gender equality in science and technology,” Diao said.

The event also energized and excited Diao’s ChBE students, who assisted the girls in their lab activities, she said.

Among the current ChBE students who helped with the camp were Molly McGiles and Elizabeth Sanders. Both attended GAMES camps when they were in high school and said the camp provided opportunities for meeting other young women in engineering and learning more about what they wanted to study in college.

“It helped me find my niche,” said Sanders, who is now a sophomore majoring in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. The camp also brought the two of them together and they are now working on their own STEM outreach project which they hope to launch this summer.

The chemical engineering camp is led by Lecturer Dr. Jerrod Henderson and Ricky Greer, a K-12 education specialist, with help from faculty and current students. This year’s group has 24 students from Illinois, Texas, Michigan, and other states.

“It is fantastic that the department sponsors this meaningful event for the high school girls every year,” Diao said.

Some outreach-minded folk in chemical engineering have begun a new after-school program, the St. Elmo Brady STEM Academy, hoping to make a difference in the lives of underrepresented minority boys. While programs providing hands-on STEM activities happen fairly frequently at Booker T. Washington STEM Academy (BTW) in Champaign, Illinois, what sets this program apart is its emphasis on minority role models— including the boys’ own fathers.

A student, Dr. Jerrod Henderson and Lonna Edwards measure the voltage of a potato battery.

This unique aspect—the idea of involving fathers—came from a program Dr. Jerrod Henderson, a lecturer in the Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Department, and Ricky Greer, a specialist in K–12 education, recently created then piloted at the Don Moyer’s Girls’ and Boys’ Club in Champaign.

Regarding the fathers’ involvement: “It had a great impact on the kids and their excitement,” recalls Greer, “and we really enjoyed seeing the fathers get down on their hands and knees and work on the projects with their sons.”

The St. Elmo Brady STEM Academy will run for eight weeks with three sessions a week—one intentionally held on Saturday so the boys’ fathers can attend.

However, while involving fathers is an important aspect, for some young participants, the father might not be in the picture; the second program component involves recruiting Illinois graduate and undergraduate students to mentor the young participants.

The third member of the team, Allante Whitmore, a Ph.D. student in Agricultural & Biological Engineering, indicates that student mentors will also serve as role models to demonstrate that, “Hey, I’m going to college. You can do it too.”

Mentoring was included so each team member could look back and see how important certain people were in helping them get to where they are today.

Left to right: Allante Whitmore, Dr. Jerrod Henderson, and Ricky Greer, the team that created the St. Elmo Brady STEM Academy.
Left to right: Allante Whitmore, Dr. Jerrod Henderson, and Ricky Greer, the team that created the St. Elmo Brady STEM Academy.

A third way the program will incorporate role models is during the activities. While addressing a different topic each week, the team will showcase a multicultural scientist who has contributed to that area, such as the program’s namesake, St. Elmo Brady. This emphasis on African-American scientists who paved the way was added because of the positive role models they can be for students of color.To ensure the program’s success, the program is targeting 4th and 5th grade underrepresented males who are interested in STEM, hoping to get them interested in STEM early.

While the three hope to lure some young men into the STEM pipeline, they admit that one reason they’re doing the program is they just plain love teaching.

Henderson admits that he’s always wanted to teach: “From early on, I knew that I wanted to be a teacher. So I had mentors in my life that pushed me towards, ‘Well, if you want to teach, this is what you’re going to have to do. It was always those mentors that had an outreach component to what they were doing.'”

So like the mentors who helped him, Henderson wants to lend a hand to some youngsters in this community:

“In my community, in the colleges where I attended, that’s the culture. You give back to your community, and I was raised with that. You don’t think twice about it. That’s what you’re supposed to do; you reach back and you help others.”

The team’s personal goals for the program are varied. Greer wants to reach out to young African-American males: “You just have to work, and be that mentor, and show them that it is possible to be successful…And again just having a passion for the community and wanting to uplift the community.”

“I want to expose these young people to STEM,” says Henderson. “But beyond STEM…whatever career path they choose, I feel that they are going to look back and say, ‘I remember when I was in this program, and these people really helped to push me and encourage me.’ And it’ll go a long way. I’m just a proponent of exposure.”

Lecturer Dr. Jerrod Henderson helps a youngster with his potato battery during one of the program's sessions.
Lecturer Dr. Jerrod Henderson helps a youngster with his potato battery during one of the program’s sessions.

Henderson goes on to share how some of the things he was exposed to as a youngster influenced his becoming a chemical engineer:

“I always liked science, for some reason,” he confesses. Maybe it’s because as early as 6th or 7th grade, he was going to engineering conferences. Leaders of his community’s mentoring program said, ‘We’re going to give these kids something to do!’ So they took him and other kids to college open houses and football games—even the Black Engineer of the Year Awards.

Henderson envisions a scenario in which his mentoring program might have that same kind of influence in these youngsters’ lives: “While we might expose them to STEM, they might also get the chance to travel to these conferences that we have talked about. And all of it came about because they were part of a STEM program.”

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

Cookie Settings