Students, researchers in the chemical sciences lead middle school students in STEM activities


In May, students and researchers from the School of Chemical Sciences at Illinois and the Molecule Maker Lab Institute  met with two groups of middle school students at The Well Experience and University Laboratory High School's DREAAM House program to build solar cells using fruit and vegetable juices.

The nine-person team led by David Friday, a chemistry graduate student in the Jackson Lab, and Tiara Torres-Flores, a ChBE graduate student, not only guided the students in building solar cells using various juices, but they selected certain types of juices using strategies inspired by machine learning algorithms.

Over the course of two hours, Friday said the middle schoolers learned about how sunlight can be converted into electricity, competed in a game-show activity to learn how computer simulations help scientists to be strategic in research, and then used those skills to assemble their own solar cells, learning which fruits and vegetables can absorb sunlight and transfer that energy into a form that a solar cell can convert to electricity.

Friday said the kids were very engaged throughout the activities that allowed the middle schoolers to experience making and testing hypotheses; use a multimeter to test voltage and conductivity; produce thin films of titania and carbon on electrodes; explore the unexpected properties of simple materials in our world; and learn that both success and failure are important in research.

Middle school students sit at a table working on STEM activities

In addition to Friday and Torres-Flores, the nine-person team also included: 

  • Sofia Sivilotti, a computer science and chemistry undergraduate and summer researcher
  • Sagar Chaudhary, a graduate student in mechanical engineering

And Molecule Maker Lab Institute members: 

  • Prajakt Pande, postdoctoral researcher
  • Sabrina Abdulla, postdoctoral researcher
  • James Planey, postdoctoral researcher
  • Anjali Yedavalli, an MMLI intern and integrative biology undergraduate
  • David Bergandine, outreach volunteer