Prize-winning rocket and demonstrations wowed audience at STEM festival

Vanderbilt’s prize-winning rocket and fun hand-on demonstrations wowed kids and parents alike at the third annual USA Science and Engineering Festival April 25-27 in Washington, D.C. Admission to the gigantic expo, aimed at promoting STEM education, is free and officials estimated 325,000 people visited during the four-day festival.

A team of 20 graduate and undergraduate students, staff, faculty and alumni staffed a Vanderbilt booth and represented the School of Engineering, Undergraduate Admissions, Vanderbilt Institute for Nanoscale Science and Engineering, Vanderbilt Student Volunteers for Science and Vanderbilt Aerospace Club.

There were more than 3000 hands-on activities for all ages, 150 stage shows, a career pavilion and college fair, book fair and exhibits. Officials said Sneak Peek Friday alone included more than 40,000 students, teachers, military families, government officials and press. Saturday and Sunday brought in roughly 140,000 people each day.

Demonstrations wowed kids and parents

Vanderbilt, a Titanium-level sponsor of the event, hosted a booth that allowed visitors to race lasers, make bouncing bubbles and colorful compounds, and learn how materials can be modified to give entirely new properties. Both adults and children guided nano-sized magnets in ferrofluid and learned how they are being used to steer drugs to diseased sites in the human body.

“The festival represents why many of us became engineering and science educators. It is engineering undergraduate and graduate students opening the minds of young people to the endless possibilities engineering and science can bring to the world,” said Christopher Rowe, engineering management professor and engineering communications director. Rowe attended the event to help coordinate activities and participate in the college fair.

“Both large and small technology companies were present to demonstrate to the public the value of technological innovation,” Rowe said. It represented everything good about our chosen fields … girls and boys from every age group and ethnic group were well-represented at this event. It was an impressive sight.”

An addition to the Vanderbilt booth, the grand-prize-winning rocket from last year’s NASA student rocket launch competition was positioned for ‘selfies’ and Aerospace Club President Shiva Bernath, a mechanical engineering senior, was nearby to answer questions and spur excitement about rocketeering.

“I worked with fellow students to teach the public about Vanderbilt’s cutting edge research in nanotechnology, alternative energy, and biomedical engineering through fun, hands-on activities,” said Kelsey Beavers, NSF graduate fellow and doctoral candidate in the interdisciplinary materials science program. “In no other format have I been able to teach science to such a diverse crowd over such a short time. It was challenging, it was rewarding, and more than anything it was inspiring to see the spark ignite in the next generation of scientists and engineers.”

Senior design team with Professor Jennings (right)

Joining the demonstration team was a group of undergraduate students mentored by Professor Kane Jennings, chemical and biomolecular engineering department chair, and mechanical engineering Professor Amrutur Anilkumar.

The team developed prototype biohybrid solar assemblies that were vertical and three-dimensional in contrast to traditionally flat solar panels to enable higher power per land area while mimicking the solar energy capture by trees in nature.

Each cell contained a silicon electrode with a thin film of the protein Photosystem I that is responsible for photosynthesis in green plants. The presence of the protein film improves the performance of the cell by a factor of five. The environmentally-friendly liquid solution in each cell consisted of water, salts, vitamin C, and a natural mediator to replace toxic compounds that are commonly employed elsewhere.

The team was funded by an EPA P3 (People, Prosperity, and the Planet) Phase II grant. “I was very proud of my senior design team. Each student on the team displayed tremendous energy and enthusiasm in describing their biohybrid solar energy project to the many hundreds of people we met during the three-day event,” said Professor Jennings.

In addition to demonstrations and displays, Vanderbilt participated in the Career Pavilion joining companies, agencies and other colleges and universities.  Representatives from the School of Engineering and Undergraduate Admissions along with alumni volunteers spoke with prospective students and families about Vanderbilt’s programs of study and overall student culture.