H2fromH2O promotes science, defeats stigma

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Addison, 12, catches a ball thrown by a machine built by the Girl Scouts of Central Texas Lady Cans Robotics Team. “Girl Scouts CAN Drive Robots: Can You?” was one of the many exhibitions showcased out Saturday.
Photo Credit: Gabby Lanza | Daily Texan Staff

At Girl Day on Saturday, over 8,000 students participated in over 150 hands-on activities and demonstrations to spark interest in science, technology, engineering and math.

Girls of all backgrounds gathered to watch a demonstration conducted by volunteers of the H2fromH2O chemistry outreach program sponsored by chemistry assistant professor, Michael Rose.

Chemistry graduate student Liam Taylor, who has volunteered with H2fromH2O since its conception at UT four years ago, filled a balloon with hydrogen gas generated from a solar panel-powered car that split water molecules.

“Today, I will be igniting hydrogen balloons,” Taylor said. “I’m showcasing how the energy generated from the hydrogen split from water can be put into a balloon ... and give off a huge explosion.”

Rose developed H2fromH2O during his postgraduate years at Caltech, as a way to introduce science topics to local high school students.

“We mostly do presentations to get people interested in science, like today’s, where we split water into hydrogen and oxygen with a solar paneled car,” said Maher Rahman, a neuroscience freshman and H2fromH2O volunteer.

Rahman and Taylor said outreach from the scientific community is integral to break down stigmas held by middle and high school students.

“A lot of people are turned off by science. A lot of people think that it’s the ‘nerd’ subject and that it’s really boring or that you just sit in a lab and look at microscopes all day, and that’s not really true,” Rahman said.

H2fromH2O not only does demonstrations, but also provides experiment kits to local high schools to build long-term relationships, according to chemistry graduate student Ryan Pekarek, who holds a managerial position with the group.

“We basically give (classrooms) more up-to-date, relevant experiments that the kids can do,” Pekarek said. “They get to learn chemical principles while they’re doing the experiment.”

Pekarek said he hopes to put together more experiments so that H2fromH2O can offer a library of experiments for interested students. He added that the group also hosts talks and panels to facilitate interest in STEM careers at local high schools such as Austin High School.

“We’ve realized that when we’re in these classrooms, we don’t play just a science role, which I don’t think any of us expected. We also play a leadership and mentorship role to some of these kids,” Pekarek said.

Pekarek said that besides working with younger kids, he loves working with the undergraduate volunteers. He said he hopes to continue his and others’ passions for science advocacy.

“Scientists often have a hard time relating to the average person,” Pekarek said. “I think it’s important that science has PR, because science is expensive, and while I think that it’s really worth it for the public to invest in science, they need to know what they’re investing in.”