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The science behind the mystery

August 17, 2011
The Daily Mining Gazette

HOUGHTON - With activities like elephant's toothpaste, dragon's breath and oobleck on tap, you're not going to want to miss Michigan Technological University's MIND TREKKERS science road show that's making a pit stop at the upcoming Houghton County Fair.

MIND TREKKERS will be showcasing more than 80 hands-on science demonstrations under four large circus tents on the ballfield from 4 to 8 p.m., Thursday, Aug. 25.

"I encourage everyone to come out and try my ice cream," fourth-year biological science major Phill Mercier said. "I can make several different flavors. It's a very interactive cooking experience."

Article Photos

Photo courtesy of Michigan Technological University

Comparable to the science entertainment TV program MythBusters, MIND TREKKERS uncovers the mysteries of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) through high-energy innovative activities and events.

"We look for the 'Wow' factor," MIND TREKKERS Director Steve Patchin said. "Just watching the kids' expressions is absolutely priceless."

MIND TREKKERS staff is made up of currently enrolled Michigan Tech graduate and undergraduate students, who, like Mercier, voluntarily work with K-12 youth in the communities the road show visits.

"We're explaining the science behind the mystery so we'll pull out something cool, something that grabs their attention," Mercier said. "Then we give them a couple of facts so when they go home to their parents, they'll say 'did you know liquid nitrogen is -321 degrees Fahrenheit?'"

Because kids have shorter attention spans, MIND TREKKERS' staff look for science activities that involves 30 seconds to 3 minutes of interaction max.

"One thing we do that's really cool is called dragon's breath," Mercier said. "We take graham crackers and submerge them in liquid nitrogen. When they put it in their mouth, they're not expecting anything to happen and then all of a sudden they breathe and they can see it coming out. When they try to cover their mouth it starts coming out of their nose."

Patchin said they call it a U.P. hors d'oeuvre because it tastes good, too.

Another favorite is the oobleck activity. The gooey mixture of water and corn starch pours like a liquid but turns to a solid when stepped on.

Created two years ago, MIND TREKKERS focus is engaging students and inspiring them to think about science and technology in a new and exciting way. Incorporating music and video, events have three main components: a variety of hands-on activities, booths staffed by representatives from area businesses or high-tech fields, and representatives from area colleges and universities who provide information about STEM programs.

"UPPCO is going to be out during our Science and Engineering Festival at the fair," Patchin said. "They're going to have some interactive displays and we'll have some universities out there, too."

Patchin said MIND TREKKERS has made appearances at several science and engineering festivals throughout the country, including the Einstein Project Science Expo in Green Bay, the USA Science and Engineering Festival in Washington D.C, among other venues. In May, they completed a four-day show - that made stops in Traverse City, Sault Ste. Marie, Escanaba and Iron Mountain - funded by a grant by AT&T Michigan.

Patchin said MIND TREKKERS has the ability to host small programs with several hundred students to major events that can accommodate 5,000 to 20,000 students per day. Events are often open to community and families.

"We have great kids at Tech; I can take just about anyone out on the road and they're going to be just fantastic," he said.

For Mercier, being a volunteer gives him the opportunity to give back to the community.

"This is our chance to encourage the students and youth in the area to continue their education and follow their dreams and understand why, rather than just accepting the fact that the grass is green and the sky is blue," he said. "They learn these little tidbits and that's what it takes to spark their interest and get them to want more."

Patchin said they're hoping to host science festivals in more rural communities as well, which is why they're introducing the program at the Houghton County Fair.

"We've done some things here and there on a small scale, but we've done more large venues and wanted to come back and show the community exactly what these kids are doing," he said. "We'd love to do something here every single year so you can count on it."

The Science and Engineering Festival at the Houghton County Fair, sponsored by the Michigan Space Grant Consortium, is going to be a one-of-a-kind experience for kids and families of all ages. Family passes, which includes admission for two adults and four children (ages 7-15) are $10.

Tickets will be sold up until the Wednesday before the fair at the Houghton County Fair office; offices of 93.5 FM, The Bike Shop, Dairy Queen, Down Wind Sports, the Mine Shaft and Perkins Restaurant.

For more information, call 906-487-2219, email or visit MIND TREKKERS online at The website offers information about the program, activities, road show lessons for teachers, a media gallery with photos, profiles of the crew and more.

Editor's note: This feature is part of a paid advertising package purchased by Michigan Technological University. Businesses interested in being featured on the Business page may call Yvonne Robillard at 483-2220.



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