Igniting the STEM Spark

Igniting the STEM Spark

Published Aug. 4, 2014

At age 31, Chris Carron has landed a great fortune – doing what he loves for a living. His only regret: that he wasn’t turned on to it sooner.

So, as he goes about his graduate student life, working on research in nanotechnology to contribute to life-changing solutions in the creation of minute machines and circuits, he has more on his mind than just microchips. He’s looking to ignite a STEM spark in the minds of the young and impressionable.

And that’s why he plugged into the Teachable Moments for STEM initiative.

“I wish I’d known about engineering sooner, so I could’ve gotten into it sooner,” says the electrical engineering major. “I arrived at this path randomly, but I’m so sure that this is where I should’ve been all along. This is what I was meant to do; this is what really makes me happy in life.”

Through Teachable Moments for STEM, he’s hoping to help expose students in grades K-12 to at least part of the STEM world so their career journey doesn’t have to be random.

Carron – whose father is a doctor – says that growing up, he never really understood what an engineer did, having been exposed only to medicine. As a result, he understands how critical exposure is to setting a career course.

“What we’re trying to do with Teachable Moments for STEM is expose kids sooner – expose them to something that’s actually really cool,” Carron said.

Chris Carron teaching in front of a class

Teachable Moments for STEM Outreach Ambassador Chris Carron talks to a group of summer camp visitors to Georgia Tech about what careers might be possible with a STEM education.

A Two-Pronged Outreach Approach

Carron is one of 10 graduate students who have begun reaching out to K-12 students through both interactive group outreach sessions (either at Georgia Tech or at elementary, middle, and high schools) and short video demonstrations. The point of both approaches is to provide a glimpse into what graduate students do every day as part of their work in nanotechnology and, by doing so, demonstrate that science, technology, engineering, and math are not nearly as intimidating as they have been reputed to be – and should be real considerations when making career choices.

“I didn’t even get into engineering and science till halfway through college and, frankly, didn’t have much confidence in these areas,” Matt Smith explained to summer campers visiting Tech’s Institute of Electronics and Nanotechnology (IEN) for an outreach session in June. “But then, I realized science and engineering is really accessible to anyone; anyone can enter these fields as long they’re curious, have some determination, and have the right person teaching, which is why I was motivated to help teach kids through this Teachable Moments for STEM initiative.” 

After participating in the introductory nanotechnology activities that Smith and three other graduate students conducted during that June session, 14-year-old Lucas Belangia said, “I really liked how we could relate to the Georgia Tech students because they’re younger. Because they have a young perspective, they know about stuff we can relate to.”

Student performing simple experiment with other students watching

This summer camper's Teachable Moments for STEM experience involved submerging glass in water as part of a visibility experiment. 

A Dual-Benefit Strategy

The strategy of connecting K-12 students with graduate students to stir STEM curiosity in the workforce of the future also comes with a bonus for the Tech students: It encourages them to communicate about their work in ways that are meaningful to non-scientific minds.

“Not only do we have to come up with new theories, new processes, and materials, we also have to be able to explain our findings to the public,” said Smith, who is a materials science and engineering major. “So what better test field to have than these outreach opportunities where you’re developing your skills of explanation.”

Carron agrees that, at the end of the day, the Teachable Moments for STEM project will benefit the graduate students as much as the K-12 target.

“As we teach and have to really wrap our brains around how we explain things in their simplest terms, we as engineers understand better what we’re doing,” he said.

Carron, who is the first of the graduate students to begin working on his series of mini video lessons, will demonstrate the basics of making a microchip in his video outreach. Entitled Sandcakes and Chips, his videos, which will total only about 45 to 60 minutes, are intended to demystify the making of a microchip.

“A microchip is nothing more than very pure beach sand. You scoop up a bunch of sand at the beach, purify it, and shape it into a chunk you can work with. From that point, it’s like baking a cake; it’s just that the oven and ingredients are different,” Carron said. “Sure, if you’re going to make a microchip for a computer, there’s much more complexity involved, but the basic ideas are very simple. So I’m going to focus on four of the basic principles of making a microchip and show that if you repeat these steps, scaling it up millions of times, you can make something as complex as a computer chip.”

Closeup of sand samples in petri dishes for experiment

Graduate students preparing for Teachable Moments for STEM K-12 outreach practiced their teaching skills with a variety of activities, including a magic sand experiment.

Tech Starter

Carron’s Teachable Moments for STEM videos – and those to follow by his Teachable Moments for STEM peers – will be available via YouTube and will be posted to the Georgia Tech Starter site, Tech’s very own crowdfunding vehicle. In fact, the Tech Starter site is key to the viability of the graduate students’ video productions. The video production portion of the K-12 outreach can only begin once a graduate student has secured a $1,000 stipend – $500 through Tech Starter contributions, supplemented by a dollar-for-dollar match by Tech’s School of Electrical and Computer Engineering and the ACE/Sloan Legacy Project Award through the Office of the Vice President of Institute Diversity.

According to IEN Academic Professional Diana Palma, also the Teachable Moments for STEM co-creator, the immediate goal for this project is to have created 20 video series by the end of 2014; there’s already a waiting list for those graduate students who will begin participating in the Teachable Moments for STEM outreach in the fall. In the meantime, Palma’s excited about the overall far-reaching potential of the dual-pronged outreach.

“With the group outreach sessions, we have reached over 800 students in just four months,” said Palma. “I expect by the end of the year, we would’ve reached about 2,500 kids personally – and, of course, so many more exponentially through the videos that will be produced by 20 grad students.”

Palma says the long-term vision, once the financial support continues, is to create 20 videos each year, which she’s confident will go a long way toward driving younger students to understand and develop an interest in STEM fields – to align with the demand for STEM talent in the workforce.

“We know that by bringing students in touch with researchers who love what they do, we can impact them enough so they consider choosing a STEM career, which, ultimately, will lead to America’s improved competitiveness in the fields of STEM.”

Video: What is the Teachable Moments for STEM initiative?


Writer: Brigitte Espinet
Photos: Fitrah Hamid
Graphics/Page Design: Erica Endicott
Video: Georgia Tech Starter