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North Country students partner with UNH STEMbassasors for day of engineering fun

Through activities and communication, students from area schools learned about careers in technical fields on Friday during STEMFest in Groveton. (Courtesy Photo — Brooks Payette) (click for larger version)
September 28, 2016
GROVETON — When Brooks Payette was a kid, he thought an engineer was the guy who ran the train. Growing up in Berlin, he did not have a lot of first-hand exposure to the field of engineering, and he did not realize its potential to create jobs. So when the UNH graduate was given the chance to bring the first UNH STEMfest back to his hometown in 2015, he jumped at the chance.

STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics and sometimes is referred to as STEAM, which includes Art. STEM is a booming area of study which encourages students to think creatively, problem solve, and explore a variety of areas of science and mathematics when solving real world problems.

Students who pursue STEM careers might just end up as engineers, though not necessary the kind who drive trains.

In its first year, back in 2015, the North Country STEMFest hosted over 400 students from 10 different North Country schools, as well as their teachers, who got a full day of professional development while their students were working with student and faculty volunteers from UNH. However, there were many students who were not able to attend the event, which was hosted at Berlin High School. The cost of transportation is a significant barrier, and many students cannot attend a weekend a event.

The solution? Bring STEMFest to the schools. For the two days leading up to STEMfest 2016, twenty UNH student volunteers canvassed the North Country, spending time in Lancaster, Groveton, Gorham, Berlin, and Conway, leading free workshops and getting students to think about becoming engineers. They estimate 750 local students will have had a chance to know more about STEM careers as a result of the three-day trek.

Kaelin Chancey, a 2013 WMRHS graduate, knew about engineering from get-to. Her father is an electrical engineer. So the field was no mystery to her when she began taking pre-engineering and STEM classes during high school. She then went to UNH where she is currently pursuing a degree in mechanical engineering.

Chancey, along with nine other UNH students, spent her Friday morning at Groveton Elementary School facilitating the Amusement Ride Challenge in an effort to expose students to the diverse and exciting field of engineering. Their team headed off to Lancaster in the afternoon.

According to their website, STEMbassadors is a team of more than 40 students from the College of Engineering and Physical Sciences (CEPS) who are dedicated to providing inspiration, role models and hands on STEM activities to students.

All nine academic departments within CEPS are represented, ensuring a wide-range of topics are delivered to the K-12 community. In only its second year, the group has reached over 3,500 students around the state through events such as STEMfest and school outreach.

Payette is excited by the growing interest in the group, as well as its diverse offerings.

The Amusement Park activity is one of 14 different activities in the toolbox of the UNH STEMbassadors. When organizing with the group, teachers can choose the activities, all of which are aligned to curriculum. He notes that some schools are happy to have any exposure, while others have something very specific in mind when they host the group. All events are free to students and their schools.

"We have some local sponsors such as Fidelity Investments, ReMax/Northern Edge, and the T&C is very hospitable when we're up here," said Payette.

He also noted the support of the UNH Alumni Foundation, the Craig and Linda Rydin Charitable Trust, and the College of Engineering and Physical Science, but said the group really exists on a shoestring budget.

"The STEMbassadors don't get paid. They are missing classes, jobs, internships, all to come out and do this. They really believe in it," Payette added.

Chancey and Payette both see the need to bring such programs around the state, especially to the North Country where students may have limited exposure to career options.

The students in Groveton were all very curious during the introductory Q&A session where the STEMbassadors introduced themselves, their majors, and their interests which ran the gamut from working on nuclear submarines to building a lightsaber.

Many of the students were keen on solving the lightsaber problem.

Students were given the chance to ask questions of the young engineers. When asked to clarify what engineering actually is, one UNH student responded, "It's problem solving with a fancy name. It's about failing and trying again until you get it right." The other nine nodded in assent.

Payette stressed the importance of getting more students interested in STEM careers, especially in the North Country. When asked if she had ever considered being an engineer before, one Groveton student replied, "I'd never thought of it before. But now I'd like to be an engineer. It's fun to build stuff!"

With such comments, one could conclude that the STEMbassadors' techniques seem to be working.

For more information on STEMFest or any of the UNH STEMbassadors, visit their website at ceps.unh.edu/STEMbassadors or contact Payette at brooks.payette@unh.edu.

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