University of Florida: Humanitarian Filter

Members of the University of Florida’s AIChE Student Chapter.

By Maria Carmona Montalvo

AIChE’s K-12 Committee hosted the first all-virtual K-12 STEM Showcase and Outreach Competition on November 15, 2020. The event was part AIChE’s first virtual Annual Meeting and Annual Student Conference.

One of the most fun parts of being in the K-12 Committee is getting to see the wonderful designs for modules and at-home experiments that AIChE student chapters present at our STEM Outreach Competition. In this section, we highlight winning entries from last year’s event. 

The University of Florida’s AIChE Student Chapter’s dedication to student outreach 

Imagine an auditorium full of middle school girls excited to be at the University of Florida to learn about engineering during the Girls in Engineering Conference. Now, imagine that you see one young man in this sea of girls. 

Sean Kochanowsky, a first semester freshman at the University of Florida, remembers this all-girl event as the first time he connected with the AIChE group at the school. Speaking with Amanda Orta Santana, the volunteer coordinator for the University of Florida’s AIChE chapter, he learned about the group and saw firsthand the positive impact events for young students could have. Sean became dedicated to K-12 outreach that day, and he hasn’t stopped since. 

This dedication to student outreach is seen throughout the University of Florida’s Student Chapter of AIChE. So, when the group learned of the K-12 STEM Outreach Competition at the 2019 Annual Student Conference, they knew they wanted to take part. That year, the UF team presented a module titled the “Humanitarian Filter.” 

In the demonstration, K-12 students were tasked with making a filter using things like a plastic bottle, coffee filters, soil, rocks, and other readily available materials. They had to filter out the particulates in water to normalize the pH, so that the water would be drinkable. The students went through the entire engineering process; they designed the process, prepared a cost analysis, built, tested and then finally presented their project. 

University of Florida AIChE Student Chapter advisor Sindia Rivera-Jimenez has been an integral part of the group’s K-12 efforts.

Sindia Rivera-Jimenez (center) consults with her AIChE Student Chapter members as they design a filtration system demonstration.

The winning team

Traditionally, one week after the Annual Student Conference, Rivera-Jimenez meets with her students to discuss the next year’s K-12 project. The students form teams and pitch their ideas. Eventually a project is selected, and the team members develop a STEM teaching module that is imaginative, relevant, and above all fun for the students. In 2020, the team won first prize in the 9th–12th grade category for its module, “Saving Lives with Centrifugation.” The winning team consisted of Amanda Orta Santana, Sean Kochanowsky, and Melina Michel. 

The teammates share a strong commitment to community and a passion for STEM outreach. However their backgrounds could not be more diverse.

Melina Michel is a Haitian-American in her third year at the University of Florida. She works at the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, where she researches the effect of heat stress on rice. She became interested in STEM outreach as a way to give back to the community. Melina believes that, “With many people around us going through hardships, it is crucial that we as humans come together and support each other where we can.”

It was Melina’s own exposure to science outreach as a child that led her to choose chemical engineering as a career path. “I always loved science experiments and demonstrations in school, and it was what encouraged me to see the world as a fascinating place full of wonder that I could explore if I wanted to. Participating in K-12 and allowing students to experience science hands-on for themselves re-fills me with appreciation and respect for those who allowed me to have those same experiences when I grew up.” 

Amanda Orta Santana was born in Cuba and came to the United States when she was 15. Despite an initial language barrier, Amanda excelled in high school and studied chemistry at Florida International University (FIU). When she discovered chemical engineering, she transferred to the University of Florida. Her research centers on the development of new polymers. Amanda wants to eventually work in the pharmaceutical field, because she wants to “be able to make a difference in many people’s lives.” She enjoys teaching, which she discovered as a teaching assistant at a karate school. “I love being able to participate in events that can teach students that science is magical…helping students from an early age to know what chemical engineering is and how it can change your life.” Most importantly, Amanda wants to help students learn how to navigate all aspects of college — something that she wishes that someone had shared with her.

Sean Kochanowsky is a second-year chemical engineering student, the current K-12 engagement chair, and future outreach director of the University of Florida Chapter. He hopes to pursue a PhD specializing in either materials or pharmaceutical engineering. He developed a love of STEM as a young student, finding the classes challenging and fascinating. As mentioned earlier, he discovered AIChE as a freshman, and by his second semester applied for the student chapter’s K-12 engagement position. He says that he appreciates “the monumental impact that inspiring individuals at a young age can have.” Recently, he was able to do tabletop demonstration events at local middle schools, participate in the annual UF Engineers Fair, and volunteer for Girls Engaged in Gator Engineering.

Overcoming the impact of COVID-19

Given the circumstances of the COVID-19 outbreak, the majority of K-12 events at the University of Florida were cancelled. Although it was disheartening at the time, Sean and the other students were determined to continue to make an impact in K-12 outreach. They developed online material for students so they could continue to learn and be inspired from the safety of their home. The chapter also partnered with an organization called a Reason to Give. The chapter members went to a fraternity on campus and worked with them to prepare dozens of prepackaged lunches to give to a local homeless community in Gainesville. Melina says that the project exposed her “to the existence of a community that I had truthfully never been aware of, and it reminded me that we can always help others with a little bit of time and dedication.”

Learn more about the AIChE K-12 Community