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The excitement of science is shared with 10,000 school students at Engineering Expo 2017

There are few occasions when explosions are positive things.

But for USF’s engineering students, the more detonations and eruptions the better. That’s the central philosophy for Engineering Expo, a two-day student-run event bringing elementary, middle and high school students from across the Tampa Bay region to experience hands-on exhibits that act as examples for all things physics, chemistry and engineering.

For this year’s event – its 45th year – the tradition of controlled explosions continued. The grounds around USF’s College of Engineering were covered with young students Feb. 17 and 18 as the 2017 Engineering Expo took off.

“It’s really amazing to be here, because there’s a lot of experiments we’ve never done (at school),” said Angelica, a fourth-grader from McDonald Elementary School in Seffner, who said she is learning at school about wind energy, water energy and non-renewable energy. “If you’re here for the first time, you feel like you want to stay here.”

The annual Engineering Expo is completely run by USF students and invites K-12 students from across the state – some 10,000 of them – offering them hands-on exhibits, ongoing experiments, shows, robots and other creations that help encourage more students to pursue fields in science and mathematics.

That may be the main goal, but another goal is offer a really fun learning experience, said Martin Bucheli, president of Engineering Expo 2017.

“We focus on hands-on and interactive STEM-related exhibits – science, technology, engineering and math – and it’s pretty amazing what the Expo board members put together,” said Bucheli, a senior studying industrial engineering. “They really work a lot of hours to make sure the Expo is the best it can be. We also appreciate all the exhibitors because they also put in a lot of effort to make sure that, when the kids come and see everything, they are awestruck and inspired to really want to dig a little deeper in engineering and hopefully leave them with the ‘Whoa!’ factor.”

Exhibits and experiments at the Engineering Expo are tailor-made to the students’ grade levels and help teachers bridge math and science concepts they are teaching in the classroom, said Tricia Craig, a science resource teacher at McDonald Elementary School in Seffner.

“I think this event is important for both teachers and students,” Craig said. “For teachers, it gives them the opportunity to see how easy it is to do some hands-on (activities) and also gives them the opportunity to expose their students to experiments they couldn’t do in their classrooms. For the students, this event makes alive what science really is. It’s the spark that leads into that engineering or that science field they might want to go into.”

The magic of the Expo is that it inspires young students to enter STEM fields, a concept Craig said she has seen play out, even in her kindergartners.

“I feel it’s so important to start with my kindergartners because they’re the foundation, that’s when we can set the love of science,” Craig said. “It’s so important to plant that seed of science as early as we can.”

Coordinating all the logistics associated with bringing in more than 10,000 students to USF across two days is not an easy task. An active student board starts planning early to make the Expo maintain its reputation for being a successful event.

“We communicate with the schools all year long because we have to be in constant contact with the teachers and the chaperones,” said Emily Pretorius, schools director for Engineering Expo and a USF senior in computer science. “That way, we make sure we have all of the thousands of students come in and leave safely.”

More than 40 years of offering the Engineering Expo experience has had an impact on filling the pipeline with students aiming for engineering and science careers – even current USF engineering students remember attending Expo themselves.

“I came to Engineering Expo as a kid with my Girl Scout troup and it really opened my eyes to engineering,” said Sydney Luzier, director of Visitor Relations for the Engineering Expo 2017 and a civil engineering major at USF. “What really got me was when a couple of older students talked about how engineering is about helping people. That was when I knew this is what I want to do. And when I walked around and saw these huge activities and experiments, I fell in love with it. And that’s why I wanted to be a part of Engineering Expo, so I can bring it to other kids.”

In the end, coordinating Engineering Expo helps USF student gain broader skills beyond only engineering concepts, including project management, large-scale event planning, and leadership, said Robert H. Bishop, PhD, dean of the USF College of Engineering.

“It’s another way to practice articulating a vision for science and engineering,” Dr. Bishop said. “This is an opportunity for us to demonstrate our passion for engineering, as well as the passion our own students have helping others understand what engineers and scientists do. Expo gives us an opportunity to showcase our programs to the community and, for the community, Expo gives them an opportunity to come in and see what scientists and engineers do. So it’s a win-win situation for both the community and for us.”

In addition to teaching K-12 students the importance of science and technology in our lives and the value in learning about its impact on society, Engineering Expo also offerings activities geared toward fulfilling mathematics and science learning standards set by the Florida Department of Education.

Participants find more than 60 exhibits demonstrating engineering principles and featuring the latest technology used by companies such as Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and Tampa Electric Company (TECO). There are also presentations by science technology engineering and mathematics (STEM) programs from local schools that demonstrate their technology interests.

Everything circles back to a key message: Engineering Expo is meant to get kids engaged in engineering.

“It’s a lot of work across the semester on top of our own school work, but when the kids come in and you see all the excitement on their faces, it’s all worth it,” Luzier said. “They are so thrilled to be there getting excited about STEM.”

Dr. Bishop agreed and put it into a larger perspective.

“If you think about the challenges we face in the world today, whether it’s water, food, safe and secure transportation, renewable energy, accessible health care – you name it and somewhere there’s a role for scientists and engineers to find answers and solutions,” Dr. Bishop said. “So we need to inspire students from kindergarten on up so they understand that they, too, can be explorers. After all, scientists and engineers are explorers.”

Story by Sarah Worth, photos and video by Ryan Noone, USF Communications

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