Students have a ball making bouncy balls

CHAMPAIGN — They got to wear safety glasses and gloves. Pick their own colors. Add sparkles. Stir their mixtures. Drill a hole in a ping-pong ball.

And at the end, the result was a ball they could keep.

Kindergartners at Booker T. Washington STEM Academy in Champaign had trouble containing their excitement for a science activity that had them making bouncy balls with help from students from Urbana Middle School.

But as Joe Muskin pointed out, they were actually involved in a manufacturing process that had them mixing a polymer with a cross-linker and making a mold. Muskin compared the polymer to spaghetti and the cross-linker to superglue that holds it together to make a solid mass.

Muskin is education coordinator for the Center for Nanoscale Chemical-Electrical-Mechanical Manufacturing Systems and helped students from the two school districts make the balls Monday at the Champaign elementary magnet school.

Washington STEM coordinator Martha Henss said activities like Monday's are part of the school's effort to get students excited about education, particularly in areas of science, technology, engineering and math.

"We are doing lessons that require inquiry and hands-on activities that will re-engage our kids and excite them about STEM education," Henss said.

The collaboration started with an idea at the Washington STEM Academy, which approached the science department at Urbana Middle School, said Tina Lehr, the STEM instructional coach at Urbana Middle School, who also coordinates STEM education throughout the district.

Both school districts take part in a program called Entrepreneurial Leadership in STEM Teaching and Learning, which is a professional development program for teachers at the University of Illinois, paid for by the National Science Foundation.

The middle school students were chosen by their science teachers for their leadership abilities, Lehr said, and by teaching kindergartners about a scientific process, they'd develop those skills more.

It's one students for things to know about a process, Lehr said, but it deepens their understanding when they demonstrate it to others.

Lehr said the Urbana school district wants to try having older students teach younger ones throughout the rest of the school year and next.

For example, Urbana eighth-grade Zoe Capps walked four kindergartners — Domino Williams, Amy Guiterrez, Kamiah Staples and Diana Siedenburg — through the process. She started by weighing the ingredients, adding food coloring and glitter, putting the mixture into a degasser to remove air bubbles, using a drill press to make a hole in a ping-pong ball (Muskin and Henss helped and guided students with this).

During the process, she answered questions and listened to the students as they talked both on-topic ("This is so cool," said Williams and cries of "Look at my color! Look at my color!" after the food coloring went in) and off (each student at the table told Capps her birth date).

The students had scientific observations as well. Williams noticed that when her mixture came out of the degasser, it was easier to stir. Staples found it to be smoother.

Before pouring the students' mixtures into the ping-pong ball molds, Capps labeled each with a student's name.

The balls will cure overnight before students will break away the mold and probably immediately start bouncing their work.

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