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Kids solve candy crime, construct circuits at Concordia for BrainSTEM

Andrea Greiff, adjunct biology instructor at Concordia College, walks students through the investigation of a candy crime.

Seventh-graders from Fargo’s Ben Franklin Middle School filled the halls and classrooms at Concordia College recently, building paper airplanes, peering into microscopes, and connecting circuits as part of the sixth annual BrainSTEM event.

“At BrainSTEM, the kids get exposed to workshop leaders from very diverse backgrounds, and this helps them to realize that anyone and everyone can do science and be in a technology field,” said Concordia Provost and Dean Susan Larson. “It also comes at a time in students’ lives when renewing their interest and enthusiasm for science and learning is a good idea! Kids come away from the event excited and inspired.”

The North Dakota Section of the American Society of Civil Engineers partners with Concordia, the North Dakota State University College of Engineering, Minnesota State University Moorhead, and local businesses for the event every year, featuring STEM workers from a variety of groups often underrepresented in STEM.

This year, workshop leaders included Larson and two other Concordia colleagues Dr. Thelma Berquó, associate professor of physics, and Andrea Greiff, adjunct biology instructor.

This year, I had one student tell me it was the best field trip she had been on. That warmed my heart."

Dr. Susan Larson

Provost and dean of the college

Berquó, who has held positions at the Physics Institute of the University of São Paulo, Brazil, and at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, has led BrainSTEM workshops three times before.

“I think the importance of any outreach event is to help inspire young minds to pursue a career in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics,” she said. “We try to help them understand that STEM is for anyone who is curious and has the desire to know more about nature and how things work.”

She designed her workshop to allow seventh-graders to investigate the layers of the Earth, learning how scientists know they exist and how they relate to events on Earth’s surface. Then students constructed a fan that would represent those layers.

“I like to see the excitement of the students, and how they express their curiosity,” said Berquó, whose own enthusiasm for the event led her to get Greiff involved too, helping organize the event and then presenting a workshop of her own.

Greiff’s session put students to work as detectives, investigating the evidence after a heinous candy theft. The seventh-graders learned how to use microscopes to sift through fibers found at the scene of the crime and traces left on the candy box, gathering evidence as to which sweet-toothed suspect sniped the snack.

The activity was actually adapted from one Greiff uses in her college-level biology classroom, minus some of the more complex technical portions, such as preparing slides.

“It seemed like most everyone was excited to try things out and had fun with the activity — lots of good teamwork, discovery, and reasoning things out,” she said.

BrainSTEM also helps bring students and the community at large closer to their institutions of higher education and local STEM companies too, Berquó said, allowing them to imagine themselves in those places again in the future, as adults doing science.

“STEM careers are so important to the way society functions — and they will only get more so in the future,” Greiff said. “We are going to need all hands on deck to fill those roles. Hopefully, events like BrainSTEM will get some kids excited about STEM who maybe weren’t before. Especially kids who felt that people like them — women, minorities, LGBTQ, differently-abled, etc. — didn’t belong in STEM careers. That’s one of the big driving factors behind BrainSTEM — that everyone belongs in STEM!

“The other driving factor is showing kids that STEM fields are fun! We want to dispel the idea that STEM is super serious, hard to understand, and only for elite students.”

Instead, kids leave the event smiling, full of new ideas, and often carrying paper airplanes, slime, or a link to a video game they made themselves.

“It is always so wonderful to have kids share that they loved the event. This year, I had one student tell me it was the best field trip she had been on. That warmed my heart,” Larson said. “I had another student last year tell me that after our session he did think he would go to college after all. That is exactly what you want to hear. We want the students to be inspired by science!”

Sponsors for the event included Microsoft, John Deere, Moore Engineering, Braun Intertec, Byte Speed, and the NASA-MN Space Grant Consortium.