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Mind Trekkers Science and Engineering Festivals: Inspiring K-12 Students to Explore STEM

March 2012, Volume 7, Number 3

By Stephen Patchin

The need for students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) career pathways is a nationwide issue. Community colleges are addressing this need by developing programs and partnerships that support and encourage students with an interest in STEM fields. In an effort to expose K-12 students to STEM concepts and job options in an engaging, hands-on way, Michigan Technological University scoured the research to find a solution. The result, a traveling road show manned by undergraduate and graduate students, has proven effective in engaging young minds and promoting the notion that STEM careers are not only exciting, but also achievable.

The Challenge

On May 5, 2010, the National Science Board published a report titled, “Preparing the Next Generation of STEM Innovators: Identifying and Developing Our Nation’s Human Capital.” Sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the report presented recommendations on how to support the identification and development of talented young men and women who have the potential to become our country’s next generation of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics innovators (National Science Board, 2010).

The report produced three keystone recommendations. The first, to provide opportunities for excellence, focuses on formal and informal methods to inspire and develop each student’s abilities in the areas of STEM. One of the actions the Board encourages to achieve this goal is to “leverage NSF’s Broader Impacts Criterionto encourage large-scale, sustained partnerships among higher education institutions, museums, industry, content developers and providers, research laboratories and centers, and elementary, middle, and high schools to deploy the Nation’s science assets in ways that engage tomorrow’s STEM innovators.”

The second recommendation is to cast a wide net, working with multiple grade levels and demographics. Providing opportunities for students to realize their potential and for educators to aid them in identifying their aptitudes is the foundation of this component. The final recommendation is fostering a supportive ecosystem that celebrates achievement and innovative thinking. A cornerstone of this concept is “creating a national campaign aimed at increasing the appreciation of academic excellence and transforming stereotypes towards potential STEM innovators.”

With the support of NSF, the National Research Council explored successful approaches to STEM education in K-12 schools and published its findings in a report titled, “Successful K-12 STEM Education: Identifying Effective Approaches to Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.” The report stated that “effective instruction capitalizes on students’ early interest and experiences, identifies and builds on what they know, and provides them with experiences to engage them in the practices of science and sustain their interest (National Research Council, 2011).”

Teachers use scaffolding to build the knowledge base that supports students’ broader understanding of science and engineering. The more inspirational and impactful experiences a student can participate in, comprehend, and retain, the greater number of synaptic channels are available for innovative and in-depth reasoning to occur.

International Efforts

On February 16 and 17, 2011, the International Public Science Events Conference was conducted in Washington, D.C. Sponsored by NSF, its purpose was to share efforts being initiated across the globe to actively engage students, families, and communities in exploring STEM fields of study through participatory learning. The conference highlighted the use of science and engineering festivals in embedding the importance and excitement of STEM education in each nation’s culture.

Masataka Watanabe of Japan’s governmental Science & Technology Agency presented on his country’s efforts, which include the National Science and Technology Week (NSTW). Implemented in 1960, the NSTW occurs each April, and communities and schools are required to conduct activities celebrating the wonders of science and technology that week. In 1992 the Youngsters Science Festival was established and each year is attended by more than 420,000 students in over 100 cities. The events consist of science shows, exhibitors, and workshops.

The European Science Events Association, founded in 2001, consists of 100 members from 37 countries, each hosting annual science related events or festivals that range from one weekend to one month in duration. Cost to conduct these events ranges from €10,000 to €1,000,000. Smaller events can center around programs like the Exhibition Ship, a mobile science center that travels the inland waterways of Europe.

Ren Fujun is the Director-General of the China Research Institute for Science Popularization. The government-controlled agency’s mission is to raise youth awareness of scientific outlook; improve education; extend the reach of compulsory education, including in rural areas, extracurricular science, and technology activities; organize instruction between science and technology professionals; and coordinate out-of-school science and technology activities. China’s National Science and Technology Week, sponsored annually by industry, consists of science and technology festivals in both rural and urban locations. Surveys conducted by the Institute showed that 68 percent of those attending the sponsored festivals were more interested in science and technology after they attended the events. To effectively reach rural areas of China with these informal science education programs, the Institute has worked with museums in China to construct Science Wagons that bring hands-on learning to areas with few available educational resources.

Meeting the Challenge With Yes! Expo

In 2004, Michigan Technological University conducted its first annual Youth Engineering and Science (YES!) Expo at Chrysler Arena in Ann Arbor, Michigan. This one-day, hands-on STEM career awareness event brought together industry, institutions of higher education, and government. The goal: inspire middle and high school students to explore education and careers in engineering and science. The program moved to Ford Field in Detroit, with K-12 attendance growing from 5,000 students in 2004 to over 15,000 in 2008.

The YES! Expo event format focused on two elements. First, corporations, universities, and other organizations hosted exhibits staffed by their representatives, thus allowing students to explore both academic opportunities and their associated careers. The second element was to provide an engaging educational programming platform highlighting technology, education, and careers. The Expo brought together 60 companies, 25 colleges and universities, the State of Michigan, professional societies, and community organizations. Surveys were conducted after the 2006 and 2007 events; Table 1 shows the results of the 2007 survey, which correlated with the results of the 2006 survey (Amato-Henderson et al., 2008). Responses indicate that the YES! Expo had a positive effect on student opinions of and interest in pursuing science and engineering curriculum and careers.

Table 1. Results of 2007 Post-event Survey

Statement: My participation in YES! Expo…

Strongly Disagree



Strongly Agree

led me to a better understanding of my career goals





made me think more about my continuing education after graduating from high school





increased my interest in studying engineering in college





increased my interest in studying science in college





caused me to decide to take different classes in high school than I planned to take





made me decide to work harder in school





gave me a much better understanding of what engineers do





Continuing Evolution: Mind Trekkers Science and Engineering Festivals

From the YES! Expo, the AT&T Mind Trekkers Science and Engineering Festival was born. An expansion of the YES! Expo concept, the Mind Trekkers road show first took place in XXXX over four days in four locations. At each location, Mind Trekkers tried to partner with local institutions of higher education. The purpose was two-fold. First, these institutions had established networks with educators in the area. Second, the ancillary goal of the festivals was to create or expand a relationship between the educators and students in the area and the higher education institution. The festivals would help cultivate these relationships, allowing further support programming to develop. Table 2 outlines the partners and number of participants at each festival location.

Table 2. Partners and Participants at Four Mind Trekkers Festival Locations




# of participants


Traverse City, Michigan

Traverse Bay Area ISD*



Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan

Lake Superior State University



Escanaba, Michigan

Bay College



Iron Mountain, Michigan

Bay College


*The original higher education partner in Traverse City was Northwestern Michigan College (NMC). NMC struggled to find space to host the event since it was conducting final exams that week. A decision was made by Mind Trekkers to move the host site to the Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School Districts Career and Tech Center.

The AT&T Mind Trekkers Science and Engineering Festivals had three components. The first component was the hands-on activities related to STEM fields. These activities were 30 seconds to 3 minutes in length, allowing students to engage in many activities during a fairly short period of time. They were identified as having a WOW! Factor, or a component that defied traditional logic. The activities were conducted by undergraduate and graduate students at Michigan Tech. These students were energetic role models for the fourth to twelfth grade participants. A short documentary, titled The Moment – A Mind Trekkers Experience,” chronicling the four AT&T Mind Trekkers Festivals can be viewed on YouTube at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cKlc_vYnt4g

The second component of the event was the participation of local businesses. Businesses from the area in which a festival took place brought displays, story boards, products, and hands-on activities. The business displays were staffed by STEM-related professionals working in the organization who were able to share what kind of activities they typically perform each day, what their education experience was like, how they balance family and work life, what they like most and least about their jobs, and even what they enjoy doing during their personal time.

The final component of the festivals was the inclusion of representatives from postsecondary education institutions. College and university representatives provided students with a wide range of information, including the courses students needed to take to prepare for college, the kinds of courses students would need to take to complete degrees they were interested in, the degrees each institution offered, and information about higher education costs and financial aid.

The Impact of Mind Trekkers Festivals

Informal surveys were mailed to the teachers of the classes that attended the Mind Trekkers events. These surveys were completed approximately three weeks after the events were conducted. Table 3 provides the results of these surveys.

Table 3. Results of Mind Trekkers Post-experience Survey

Survey Question



Did attending the Mind Trekkers Festival make you interested in attending college?



Are you more interested in Engineering now than you were before the Festival?



Are you more interested in Technology now than you were before the Festival?



Are you more interested in Mathematics now than you were before the Festival?



The impact of the Mind Trekkers program can be summed up by a letter from a biology instructor at a participating Michigan high school:

Since we live in such a rural area, many of my students have not had the chance to experience science activities outside the realm of the classroom. To me, the event felt like a traveling hands-on science museum. It was exciting to see my students engaged in science, math, and technology activities that they would not normally be exposed to.

Michigan Tech students that staff the Mind Trekkers program have now created a student organization on campus titled Mind Trekkers. The goal of this student organization is to recruit students who are interested in helping to expand the program. Numbering over 300 students in its first six months, the organization’s participants serve as role models, activity developers, and event staff.
Mind Trekkers members are helping to develop an outreach training program for current and future membership which includes the Michigan Campus Compact College Positive program. Students are taught words and phrases to use when describing college life, expectations, and formulas for academic success. As members and advisers continue to build the program, they will be including presentation skills and lesson-plan writing for the activities they create, which will be published on the Mind Trekkers website for teachers to reference.

The Future of Mind Trekkers

The Mind Trekkers program is evolving in three strategic directions. First, organizers will refine the training program for its undergraduate and graduate staff to perform high quality and impactful outreach. The second initiative will be to expand the reach of Mind Trekkers. A proposal was recently submitted in response to the NSF Informal Science Education RFI to create Mind Trekkers Science and Engineering Festivals across the northern tier states from Michigan to Montana over the next four years. The focus will be working with community colleges in these areas to energize rural populations with the excitement of hand-on experiences in STEM fields.

The final initiative will be to increase the work with foundations and corporations to support the growth of Mind Trekkers Science and Engineering Festivals. Support can come in the form of monetary donations to sustain and grow the programs; companies furnishing STEM professionals to describe the company’s work and act as role models; research and development labs providing hands-on activities that represent innovative research concepts being developed in their facilities; or institutions hosting events where Mind Trekkers team members from student organizations at the universities can interact with the scientists and engineers working at their companies.

Our inaugural Science and Engineering Festivals with Bay College (Iron Mountain, MI campus) and Lake Superior State University will be held again this year on May 3 and 4 with support from those communities. The success of the Mind Trekkers Festivals has led Kohler to sponsor a Mind Trekkers Festival in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, the second day being open to the general public at no cost. Expected two day attendance is 10,000 students and families.

Science and Engineering Festivals are being used as a tool to change the way STEM is viewed, embraced, and taught in communities around the world. Mind Trekkers is developing a pipeline of motivated K-12 students entering STEM fields of education, an army of undergraduate and graduate students learning and performing outreach to help motivate K-12 students, and individuals entering the workforce who have embraced a culture of outreach they will carry into their corporations and households. Mind Trekkers is a sustainable model that will help build the workforce of the future.


National Science Board. Preparing the Next Generation of STEM Innovators: Indentifying and Developing Our Nation’s Human Capital (NSD-10-33).

National Research Council. Successful K-12 STEM Education: Identifying Effective Approaches in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, p 18.

Amato-Henderson, S., Cattelino, P., Lehman, J. (2008). Outreach to Prospective Engineering Students: Michigan Technological University’s YES! Expo. International Journal of Engineering Education, Siri T61.15


Stephen Patchin is director of the Center for Pre-College Outreach at Michigan Technological University.

Opinions expressed in Innovation Showcase are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the League for Innovation in the Community College.

Posted by The League for Innovation in the Community College on 03/14/2012 at 10:41 AM | Categories: Innovation Showcase -