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Students spend summer learning through teaching

Photo of three mentors

Sometimes the best way to learn is to try your hand at teaching. That was what three chemical engineering students learned this summer when they served as mentors for the Engineering Experience Camp at the University of Illinois Chicago.

Through the camp, children learn about a new engineering department within the College of Engineering each day. Each week of the camp is aimed at different ages: elementary school, then middle school, and finally high school.

PhD student Nadia Nikolova, master’s student Louie Edano, and undergraduate student Ameena Beg led the chemical engineering section of the camp this summer. Each day, the three mentors led a group of around a dozen students through the basics of chemical engineering with fun experiments.

“The preparation required for the camp was extremely rewarding as it took the right balance to keep the kids engaged and entertained while teaching them core engineering concepts,” Nikolova said. “Every day was an exciting test of flexibility to make sure all the students were getting the best experience for the eight hours we taught them about chemical engineering.”

During the first week with the elementary campers, the mentors discussed environmental issues that chemical engineers are working to solve, such as plastic pollution. The students created their own bioplastic that can be used as an alternative to petroleum-based plastics, and the UIC students discussed the positive and negative attributes of the bioplastic the campers created.

Another experiment had the mentors taking the students outside to “walk on water” by putting corn starch in a small plastic pool, which created a material hard enough for the students to walk across.

One of the most popular experiments, according to Nikolova, was the coffee lab for high school students. In a scene ripped out of Chopped or Top Chief, the students used chemical engineering to create the ideal cup of coffee and present it with a fun backstory to Nikolova, Beg, and Edano, who served as judges.

“This allowed them to work in teams, test, experiment, problem solve, and be creative while learning about process improvement. From the feedback we received, this was definitely the favorite lesson of the day. Even after a group rotated from our department to the next, they were still talking about the coffee lab,” Nikolova said.

Edano added the camp was a great learning experience in terms of teaching him how to better convey concepts to campers of all backgrounds and previous knowledge levels.

“Being able to teach these higher-level concepts to students of all backgrounds has helped me improve on the critical skill of both teaching and listening,” Edano said. “I’ve definitely formed an even greater appreciation for educators of all levels. Plus, the camp allowed us as counselors to bring out our inner kid – something that labs and research don’t always allow for.”

In addition to helping the mentors learn, the camp may have helped plant the seeds for future chemical engineering students at UIC and other universities.

“Being able to invoke interest in chemical engineering in these young students has been so rewarding, and for so many of them to come up to us and say that they want to be chemical engineers when they grow up felt really good,” Beg said.