The great experiment

First-graders create spooky science


As the children gathered around the activity table, a little boy — whose tiny hands were already covered in a mysterious glop — screamed, “Let’s do this!”

That was just a sample of the excitement that filled Manhattan College’s Smith Auditorium as more than 150 eager first-graders participated in the National Society of Black Engineers annual STEM Junior Day. It was there the children assembled bridges and skyscrapers fashioned from gumdrops, index cards and toothpicks, while other kids colored in spooky owls and whipped up slime even James Wright would be proud of.

For this particular day, the students of P.S. 24 Spuyten Duyvil were budding engineers just like the college students who assisted them.

“The excitement that the kids have, and just seeing them and how they enjoy it … is the most rewarding part,” society president Shakiesha Featherstone said.

The society was out of commission for five years until Featherstone and Raven Stephens brought it back. They had noticed other groups on campus had engineering-focused groups, but one specifically for African-American students. Once they re-established their National Society of Black Engineers chapter at Manhattan, STEM Junior Day was one of the first programs they put together.

“If we don’t give the next generation the opportunity to see what we didn’t, we’re doing a disservice,” Featherstone said. “We want to instill in them a want to go into STEM, and if you gain that want at a young age, that increases the chances they’ll go in, If you see people that look like you, it can be motivating.”

STEM, of course, refers to science, technology, engineering and math, and this outing to the college is to inspire an appreciation for it at an early age.

One society member, Jehu Lucien, spent the time teaching the youngsters there was more to slime, for example, than simply being gooey.

“And when you let go — don’t put it on each other,” he said. “It’s liquid. Viscosity is how thick something is compared to water.”

One of the most rewarding parts about working with the students is breaking down something difficult into something they can wrap their heads around, Lucien said, which can be really fun. It’s putting science in context, like when he tried to get the kids to understand thickness in liquids by bringing up other gooey substances they might recognize, like maple syrup and milk.

Society members manned every activity station during the event, moving between the auditorium and the nearby gym where kids played with members of the Jaspers women’s basketball squad.

However, having P.S. 24 students on campus didn’t mean classes for the college students had stopped. The society members worked in shifts, coordinating with one another to accommodate each other’s schedules.

Featherstone was free that morning, but like clockwork, a new college student would appear and another would disappear every 30 minutes. Yet, the kids were too enthralled by their activities to notice.

In addition to the slime-making activity, another way the society showed the kids chemical reactions with a Halloween twist was by using everyday household items like baking soda. With that, they created a green fizzy liquid that frothed at the brim of hollowed out pumpkins, much like an overflowing root beer float. While kids patted the top of the pumpkins to feel the foam between their fingers, they exchanged looks of mischievousness and delight.

For P.S. 24 teacher, James Kelly, it’s just as much about the students having fun as it is about furthering their STEAM education, which is a science-based curriculum similar to STEM, but also includes art and architecture.

“There’s a big push for students to be college- and career-ready,” Kelly said. “They’re so far away in the first grade, but because they are doing it now, (it) allows them to see science from all different angles.”

Raven Stephens, who didn’t grow up thinking STEM was an option for her, is now a chemical engineer major, dedicated to using the program so children can see the possibility for themselves.

“We wanted to show kids that STEM can be for them and they can do things outside of sports and entertainment,” Stephens said. “And that this can really be fun.”