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U46 students get ideas at STEM Kickoff

Andy Azar 8 Elgplays piano Wednesday using slices fruit pizza. The hands-learning was part U46 STEM Kickoff event Gail Borden

Andy Azar, 8, of Elgin, plays the piano Wednesday using slices of fruit and pizza. The hands-on learning was part of the U46 STEM Kickoff event at the Gail Borden Library's Rakow Branch in Elgin. Suzanne Baker ~ Sun-Times Media

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Updated: March 3, 2014 4:36PM

ELGIN — No one blinked an eye Wednesday night when 9-year-old Elizabeth Schmied was playing with food. In fact, playing with food was encouraged.

Elizabeth learned that if she touched a slice of clementine with either a slice of orange or pizza, she could make music. With the assistant of microcontroller, wires and a computer program, the Elgin Technology Center showed kids how several pieces of acidic food and people can conduct electricity.

The experiment was just one of the innovative projects targeted for students as part of the fifth annual U46 STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) Expo. Wednesday’s event was held at the Gail Borden Library Rakow Branch. The expo was to be offered Thursday night in Bartlett Library and at the Gail Borden Main Branch.

The Rakow Branch Library proved to be a perfect place to showcase STEM activities. Because the library was built using green technology, branch assistant Devi Turner was able to demonstrate, via a model, how the library draws geothermal energy from the ground to heat and cool the building. In addition, the library offers families access to a variety of science kits, including simple circuits and robotic vehicles. Branch Director Christie Chandler-Stahl said the kits are loaned out by the library for up to 28 days.

Marc Hans, U46 coordinator of science and planetarium, said kids have a natural curiosity and STEM education helps students learn how to explore the way things work. “Like the president said last night (in the State of the Union speech), the goal is to develop the next generation of innovative thinkers and problem solvers,” he said.

The kickoff events held around the district not only spark students’ curiosity, but helps them formulate science projects for later in the year.

Aashna Valiyapurayil’s favorite activity was the piano fruit. “I’ve never played the piano with fruit,” said the 9-year-old. But she plans to focus her science project on something similar to the periscope shown by Northern Illinois University’s Office of STEM Outreach.

NIU also offered hand-on experimenting centered around sight, sound and touch, and the Boys Scouts three Fires Council showed off experiments with magnets.

The Friends of the Fox River display was popular because Cynthia Wendt had test tubes with bugs. The outreach educator captured the kids’ attention by showing the types of creatures that live in the Fox River, but by the experiments the Friends of the Fox River perform.

When Wendt explained how and why her organization tests pH levels in the Fox River. Cailan Scire, 7, knew exactly what she was talking about. The second-grader is raising brine shrimp at home, and he needed to test his tap water to see if the pH level was optimal for brine shrimp.

Cailan said when he gets older he would like to be a scientist who works with DNA. “Maybe I’ll cross a horse and a rhinoceros to make a rhorse,” he said. “Or a banana and a kiwi — a biwi.”

It may be a while before he’ll be tackling big projects like that, so for the time being Cailan will settle for making a cloud in a jar for his science project. A previous attempt at creating a cloud failed, and he reminded his dad that this time they need to select a jar that won’t melt when they add the hot water.

Trial and error, problem solving and discovery are part of the STEM learning process.

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