STEM students pioneer new projects

Jeff Kauffman works in the chemistry lab entering his calculations into an online database. Photo by Mackenzie Miller

By Mackenzie Miller – News & Features Editor

When you were a kid, did you ever buy one of the Geek & Co. science experiment kits?

Or, were you more of an old-fashioned Mentos and soda experiment kind of person?

Maybe science experiments aren’t your forte, but for eight students at Hesston College, the art of science experimentation is coming to life in the laboratories of J.D. Charles Hall.

Jeff Kauffman and Nick Eichelberger are two of those students. While many students sleep in on Thursday mornings, Kauffman and Eichelberger, both mechanical engineering majors, head to the chemistry lab to begin their STEM project around 10 a.m. Their task: experiment with the distillation of acetone: a colorless, organic solvent.

Kauffman uses his watch to time out when he can take a sample of the solution. Photo by Mackenzie Miller

Both students take samples and record data on a computer database. They repeat the process once a week for about four hours at a time, with only a small break for lunch. Their hope is to create a conclusion to be presented at LarkFest on April 20.

The natural science and mathematics department leads students in these projects, which connect to Hesston’s new Introduction to STEM Careers and STEM Projects 1 and 2 classes. These specific projects are under the supervision of Jeff Baumgartner, Joel Krehbiel, and Jim Yoder.

Students who completed Introduction to STEM Careers in the fall heard from chemical engineers, industrial engineers, mechanical engineers, environmental scientists, optometrists, and a physical therapist. Now they can dive into their projects, each addressing unique challenge in the science field.

“It’s all about the process,” said Yoder, who supervises the students. “We don’t know if we will be able to write up a report/doable experiment at the end. We just have to do one variable at a time.”

Bailyn Piecewicz, Levi Litwiller, and Tyson Crisp are working on constructing a Ruben’s Tube, a tube with flames that demonstrates the physics principle of standing waves.

Yedidiya Zewdu, Gaitan Lleshi, and Austin Troyer are working with the concept of smart classrooms: technology-enhanced classrooms that improve the efficiency of lighting.

Krehbiel’s Physics II class works on constructing the Chladni Plate. Photo by Mackenzie Miller

The process of experimenting goes beyond these three projects. Krehbiel leads his Physics II class in the construction of a Chladni plate, a piece of equipment built to make sound waves visible.

But even in a more advanced class, students can expect bumps in the road. Experiments do not always go as planned. Not even a minute into cutting the wood for the plate, the blade snapped and a trip to the hardware store was mandatory.

But it’s not about the results. Yoder and Krehbiel continue to emphasize process over outcome. While 100 percent success and accuracy will most likely not be reached, that’s not the point. The class forces students to problem-solve and think critically, getting “acquainted with the real world in a practical way,” said Yoder.

Instructors will continue to challenge students to put science into action after the projects end.

“I think we can continue to think more and more broadly and come up with bigger and better ideas,” Yoder said.

With science comes challenge, Baumgartner adds.

We all interact with these things [science-related] everyday. It’s what humans do, but the question is, ‘How do we make it better?’”

Curious? Instructors say you don’t have to be a scientist to enroll in STEM classes.

“STEM fields are great for students that like to learn about the natural world and solve problems,” Krehbiel said. “If you’re not sure whether a STEM career is good for you, come talk to the math/science faculty. We love to help!”


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