ESCANABA - Michigan Technological University's Mind Trekkers were at the U.P. State Fair as part of Youth Day on Friday. The group focuses on teaching kids that science and engineering can be fun.
"We focus on STEM: science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Our goal is to get these kids engaged in their own education through hands-on activities that last between 30 seconds and 3 minutes," said Steve Patchin, director of the Center for Pre-College Outreach at Michigan Tech.
Kids who entered the tent at the fair were able to feel the pressure of Earth's gravity, race floating Legos, and eat ice cream made with liquid nitrogen. "I've heard it described as a 'carnival of science,'" said Patchin.
Many of the activities have results that the kids aren't expecting, such as running across Oobleck, a non-Newtonian fluid that goes from a liquid to a solid when pressure is applied. Another unexpected result came from eating a graham cracker that gives kids "dragon's breath."
"We take a graham cracker and we soak it in liquid nitrogen. Then the graham cracker gets super cold because liquid nitrogen is 321 degrees below zero, Fahrenheit, that's what it boils at," said Patchin.
"When you put it in your mouth you chew it and as you're chewing it you'll get this fog will flow right out of your mouth because it turns to vapor in your mouth," Patchin continued.
The experiments were presented by undergraduate and graduate students from Michigan Tech. Many of the students are studying in science, technology, engineering, or mathematic fields. "They're the ones that are volunteering their time to conduct these activities and kind of share their expertise," said Patchin.
Bringing science to kids is no easy task. "It is so chaotic," said Kim D'Augustino, president of the Mind Trekkers student organization. "We have over 400 people in Mind Trekkers and when we go, we take groups of 50. We've taken groups of 100, and it's crazy. Everyone needs something, everyone is missing something, everybody has questions. It's crazy, but I mean, it's a lot of fun."
For the students of Mind Trekkers, it's about the smiles. "We have had grandparents in walkers and canes and we've had kids in diapers that have been doing some of these things and their faces light up, their minds are blown," said D'Augustino. "It's amazing to see their faces every time. You never get sick of those smiles."
The Mind Trekkers program has only been around for two and a half years. "It got started as kind of gamble. The Center for Pre-College Outreach was doing this kind of stuff, but it didn't have a name," said Liz Fujita, former Mind Trekker president and one of the original Mind Trekkers.
Fujita and the other early Mind Trekkers decided to take their program to a Boy Scout Jamboree. "There were 12 of us, and we had only 12 demos, and we thought, 'all right, we'll try it,' and we did and it was a wild success. We were the most popular thing in the technology section," said Fujita.
The group now travels across the country going to festivals, fairs, and conventions. In April, the Mind Trekkers went to the USA Science and Engineering Festival in Washington, D.C. "There was about 250,000 folks who came through in three days there," said Patchin.
Mind Trekkers and their mission to make science fun was brought to the U.P. State Fair with the help of a grant from the Michigan Space Grant Consortium. "They're the reason we're here," said Patchin. "Our donors - we can't do anything without getting them pitching in to help get us on the road."