Outreach Project Aims to Excite K-12 Texas Students About Biomechanics

March 17, 2022

For the past two years, most hands-on K-12 outreach projects either halted completely or shifted to online learning due to the ongoing global pandemic. But as time progressed, it became evident that many students were not thriving in this virtual-only learning environment. Teaching in STEM fields particularly lends itself to interactive projects and in-person experiments to support the understanding of complex concepts and processes.

This spring, a team of Texas engineers was finally able to conduct an in-person hands-on outreach learning project for K-12 students as part of the Science Mill Homeschool Day project. Manuel Rausch, an assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering and Department of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics, Sapun Parekh, an assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering and biomedical engineering graduate student Ella Sugerman, created an outreach project that focuses on teaching K-12 students about the mechanics of blood clots and the importance of studying them.

The Science Mill, established in 2015, is a non-profit organization with the mission is to provide equitable access to STEM programs to students across Texas. Located in Johnson City at the city’s historical Feed Mill, the Science Mill offers highly interactive museum and innovative STEM programs to “inspire students’ curiosity and give them the confidence, tools and support they need to reach their full potential as a skilled member in the 21st-century STEM workforce.”

The Texas Engineering team’s outreach program, “Science in Our Veins,” introduces students to the field of biomedical engineering and discusses how science, medicine and engineering work together. After defining a blood clot and its importance, students look at red blood cells in microscopes, make their own blood clots, and even touch and play with the blood to gain a better understanding of its stretchiness.

Using a portable materials testing device that Rausch created for at-home use during the pandemic, the students then test the mechanics of a blood clot and create force-displacement graphs with the results. The activity closes with an explanation of how studying blood clots can help doctors and scientists to better understand our bodies and disease, thus leading to the engineering and development of new cures.

Assistant Professor Manuel Rausch conducts outreach learning.

“I think what was really exciting for this group is that because they are homeschooled, they may not have had the same exposure to science labs as students who attend public schools,” said Rausch. “We prepared the tables with all of the usual lab equipment – goggles, microscopes, aprons, etc. When the kids walked through the door, we could see the excitement in their faces. The thought that this might be the first time some of them actually saw themselves as scientists was really rewarding.”

Sugerman, who is pursuing a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering and a teaching certificate at UT Austin, is passionate about educating youth in STEM.

“Doing science with youngsters has been a passion of mine for a long time, but seeing these students get excited about a project that means so much to me has been uniquely rewarding. Access to hands-on science early in my childhood was essential in getting to where I am today,” Sugerman posted in a Tweet about the event.

Rausch is excited about expanding this outreach activity to students across the state of Texas, including to rural areas where many children may not have much exposure to STEM fields. And he has already been devising new ideas for future projects as well.

Assistant Professor Sapun Parekh and participants

“Ultimately, the goal is to develop an experiment that’s robust and easy enough that it can be distributed to teachers across Texas who can then share them with a large number of students at summer camps,” Rausch said. “We may also eventually want to develop a secondary project that focuses on the disease elements of blood clots – covering topics like heart attacks, strokes, deep vein thrombosis – and discuss the use of artificial veins as treatment.”

View more photos of "Science in Your Veins" in this Flickr library.