Expanded focus engages attendees

Garrett Neese/Daily Mining Gazette Lulu Muñoz, 4, of Hancock, plays music on bananas at the Western U.P. STEM Fair and Festival Thursday.

HOUGHTON — The Western U.P. STEM Fair and Festival returned after two years away with a broader focus Thursday.

The former Western U.P. Science Fair debuted 25 years ago, before the concept of STEM exploded in popularity. In recognition, this year’s fair has also been opened to engineering projects, said Emily Gochis, regional director for the MiSTEM Network.

And they’re looking to do even more in future years.

“If there’s a way for us to do math projects or other spaces, if there’s interest, we’d like to add more categories,” she said.

The fair is open to fourth- through eighth-grade students. About 50 students entered projects this year, down from previous years, Gochis said. However, many of the new teachers and students who weren’t part of the fair when it was active before have said they want to sign up next year.

Whether in science or engineering, the fair gives students the tools to learn new information and solve problems, Gochis said.

“That investigation and using those tools are really key to preparing the students for the real world, whether they’re going to be going to a STEM career, or they’re just using those STEM skills in their everyday life,” she said.

Projects ranged from building a drone to determining which brand of sticky note would stick to a surface the most times.

Lincoln Bory, a seventh-grade student from Copper Harbor, prepared a display on the benefits of a bug-based diet.

He picked the topic after reading an article on habitat destruction caused by industrial farming.

“I knew they were healthy because a lot of people eat it, but I didn’t think it was healthier than (fish or meat),” he said.

The biggest surprise was learning that insects were more nutritious than fish or meat, he said.

For Houghton Elementary School fifth-grader JoAnn Owusu-Ansah, the inspiration came from the beating plants take from road salt every winter. She and fellow fifth-grader Jacey Zhou tested the effects of salt-water solutions of escalating concentrations on two types of ivy.

Their hypothesis — that the salt would damage the plants’ water intake, killing off plants in concentrations at 10% or above — was proved correct.

“I think the most important part here is to know what your houseplants are, how salt-tolerant they are and what you’re actually adding, because they can end up like that,” Owusu-Ansah said, pointing to a blackened plant at the end.

The renamed event also honors the annual festival of science and engineering exhibits held on the Memorial Union Building’s ground floor.

Tom Oliver, director of Michigan Tech’s Center for Science and Environmental Outreach, coordinated the fair. For the first year after the pandemic, he’s thrilled with the number of kids and parents who came in and checked things out.

“You can see kids everywhere are having fun, which is entirely what we want to do,” he said. “We want them to have fun doing science, technology, engineering and mathematics, because those are things that lead them to what they want to do with their careers.”

The fair will likely be bigger next year, Oliver said. Michigan Tech recently partnered with the Henry Ford Museum for the Invention Convention, a competition in which children invent devices to solve real-life problems.

Oliver made space for any local STEM group that wanted to participate. Students could learn about local robotics programs or recycling, or compete to see whose boat could hold the most weight.

Nagi Nakamura of Chassell, 6, most enjoyed building a catapult from popsicle sticks, rubber band and a spoon, which he used to loft cotton balls over people’s heads.

“We came here years ago the last time it was here, and he really loves it,” said his mother, Asako Nakamura.

Lulu Muñoz, 4, of Hancock, played music on a set of five bananas. Their conductivity was harnessed by connecting them to a circuit board paired with an online keyboard.

Her favorite part was an exhibit where kids got a balloon that remained inflated even after being skewered.

Her mother, Cassy Tefft de Muñoz, appreciated the chance for families to engage in STEM together.

“Sometimes kids do things in schools, but it’s really great that the whole family can be involved, and also that the kids see their parents also getting excited about these things,” she said.


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