By  Sam Caneda
Starhill Pathways participants in a biomaterials lab
Seventh-grader Antione Williams (from left) and eighth-graders Zahleek Lewin and Malachi Brown get hands-on experience in the lab under the watchful eye of Madison Stampley, a Ph.D. student in assistant professor of chemical engineering Lakeshia Taite’s biomaterials lab.

In an effort to continue building bridges to the local community from the University of Virginia School of Engineering and Applied Science, Department of Chemical Engineering Ph.D. students Charlie Leroux and Sammy Fieser led a new outreach event last month in cooperation with Starr Hill Pathways.

The department welcomed to Grounds 12 local middle and high school students, who were primarily from historically marginalized communities, to learn more about chemical engineering from current UVA Engineering students. The program took place on a day off at the participants’ local schools. 

Encouraging Local Students

Starr Hill Pathways is an initiative of the UVA Equity Center that provides career and college exploration as well as other supportive programming to seventh- through 12th-graders who attend Charlottesville City Public Schools.

“I saw an email that mentioned Starr Hill Pathways and I was intrigued,” Leroux said. “So, I went to their website and saw that their goals and mission align really nicely with a summer research program I organized with several other ChemE Ph.D. students last summer in partnership with Charlottesville City of Promise, as well as with plans our group has for the future.” 

City of Promise is a local organization that supports youth in the Charlottesville community through tools such as mentoring, tutoring and goal setting, and connecting their families to community resources.

Engaging Minds Through Cooperative Problem-Solving

Fieser, who hosted the Starr Hill event at the Department of Chemical Engineering, started the day with a talk about the meaning of chemical engineering and shared examples of impactful accomplishments by chemical engineers. The students then participated in interactive lab demonstrations, a cooperative escape-room style activity developed by assistant professor George Prpich.

Fieser and Leroux were encouraged by the enthusiastic reception of the event programming by the visiting students. They hope the program shows students the appeal of chemical engineering and all the STEM fields.

“For a lot of people, engineering is seen as kind of a foreign concept, as something that other people do. We want to show them that engineering and science are things that they can do and that they can implement into their lives and careers,” said Fieser.

“Seeing just a glint of interest is really exciting,” he said. 

Continued Partnerships and Mentoring

Fieser, Leroux and their chemical engineering colleagues look forward to inviting more Starr Hill Pathways students to Escape the Lab in April. 

The team is building on their success by incorporating these activities into another event in April called Escape the Lab. The April program will include activities such as illuminating an LED using galvanic cells crafted from fruit to traverse a dark hallway, molding a plastic door key through milk polymerization, and deciphering a hidden message with an exothermic reaction to unveil a secret message inscribed in heat-sensitive ink.

Leroux is also working on further developing the Charlottesville City of Promise partnership to recruit and mentor students who want to do a research project over the summer.