University of Houston: Engaging Young Women in STEM

Houston is a chemical engineering hub. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics data from 2017, the Houston-Woodlands-Sugar Land metropolitan area has the highest employment of chemical engineers than anywhere else — about 5,170! To put this number into perspective, the metropolitan area with the next highest number of chemical engineers is Baton Rouge with 1,090. You need to combine Baton Rouge and the seven next highest regions to have more chemical engineers than Houston.

The University of Houston AIChE Student Chapter recognizes its strategic position. Engaging the next generation of women in chemical engineering prepares them for the opportunity that’s in their own backyard. The Charter School Committee introduces STEM topics with a focus on chemical engineering to young women at the university-affiliated elementary school, University of Houston Charter School. Founded in 2017 by Kanian Khan and currently led by Tayler Hedtke, the committee has been impactful.

Bringing chemical engineering to the classroom

“We have, on average, five people go every other Friday,” explained Lucas Von Ruff, president of the University of Houston AIChE Student Chapter. Lucas continues, "we first teach a concept and then apply it through a demonstration.” This fits together with University of Houston Charter School’s emphasis on constructivism, a teaching style that emphasizes experiential learning. By using safe chemical engineering demonstrations, the University of Houston Student Chapter brings experiential learning to the elementary school.

One of the topics they covered was non-Newtonian fluids. After explaining that a non-Newtonian fluid responds to shear stress differently than a Newtonian fluid does, the group played with a starch solution to see how this difference manifests itself. Although the students may not have thought about shear stress before, they have a better understanding of it by experiencing the counterintuitive behavior. Another topic they covered was polymers. They used sodium polyacrylate to make fake snow — perfect for Christmas time. Since the polymer can absorb a lot of water, it puffs up and looks like snow. Given that polymers are all around us and have diverse applications, this demonstration makes them aware of the versatility of polymers.

Getting young women engaged in STEM, especially chemical engineering in Houston, is a rewarding experience. In a few years, the young woman that was playing with the starch solution and making fake snow will go to college. Maybe we will see her go into chemical engineering and work as a chemical engineer in Houston!