Mechanical engineering undergrad gives back to inspirational middle school


Adam Bell poses with students from Elizabeth McGee's sixth-grade science class at John Early Museum Magnet Middle School. (Photos: Heidi Hall)

Most visitors to John Early Museum Magnet Middle School see wide smiles and hear cheerful hellos while walking down hallways brightly decorated with kids’ artwork and positive messages.

But the greetings for school volunteer Adam Bell, a fourth-year mechanical engineering major at Vanderbilt University, may be even heartier.

Bell provides a frequent, visible reminder of what students at the Metro Center-area school can achieve if they work hard. The John Early alumnus also provides some of the most fun science lessons they’ll enjoy in the course of the year.

Earlier this month, Bell helped Elizabeth McGee’s sixth-grade science class carefully combine dirt, water, dry ice and ammonia to make their own comets. He distributed the materials and then went from table to table helping students who needed it, watching their eyes light up as the slurry in their plastic baggies came together in steaming, dark masses.

Adam Bell, right, helps demonstrate how dirt, water, dry ice and ammonia can make "comets."

“When I first told them I went to John Early, the kids looked so excited,” Bell said. “It’s satisfying when they show a lot of interest.”

He is a member of Vanderbilt Student Volunteers for Science, a group that recruits students to provide hands-on learning for middle-schoolers. They bring everything they need for experiments along with them — including safety equipment — all gathered from a home-base lab in Stevenson Center.

It’s Bell’s third semester in the program. He said he talked his volunteer team into adopting John Early as soon as he learned it was a possibility.

It’s invaluable for middle-school students to see young adults from universities, said Katherine Kendall, coordinator for school- and community-based support at John Early. VSVS provides professional development for teachers as well, because they get to watch young scientists lead their classes through lessons.

“When you get to be an ‘old lady,’ students don’t listen as well because you don’t know anything,” Kendall said. “They’ll listen more to what the Vanderbilt students have to say about college and career.”

Bell grew up in the Metro Nashville community of Antioch, but he could attend John Early because it is a magnet school. He said he found a supportive atmosphere in science classes there. Students were encouraged to ask questions and never teased for being smart.

Students excited about their comets.

He fell in love with mechanical engineering at Martin Luther King Jr. Magnet School, in large part over a team project to build a device that sorted clear, semi-transparent and opaque marbles using a light bulb and photo sensor.

“When we finally had to show it to the teacher, there was a moment of crisis – we caught our machine on a wire, and it snapped a leg off,” Bell said. “We had to put it back together in record time.”

He chose to attend Vanderbilt because his mother, Stephanie Reevers, graduated its law school.

Tragedy struck a few days after Bell moved into the dorms in August 2011. His father, Robert Eugene Bell, died of prostate cancer after an extended battle with the disease, but Bell was able to keep his education on track.

Bell said volunteering with VSVS has been a highlight of his time at Vanderbilt.

“It was fun when I was a student at John Early, but I remembered wishing we’d done more experiments,” he said. “A lot of the ones we do there now are interesting even to me. We did a slime lab with the fifth-graders – a polymer lesson to teach them how substances can react to each other and form a bond. We don’t get to do slime labs in mechanical engineering.”

He will graduate in May and is already considering a job offer from a Midwestern aerospace company performing stress analysis on aircraft structures.


Heidi Hall, (615) 322-6614
On Twitter @VUEngineering