Cody Howard
School of Engineering

New Discovery Lab lets middle, high school students explore engineering

Wed, 05/29/2013

LAWRENCE — A new lab that uses interactive, hands-on displays to showcase how engineers make the world a better place is now open at the University of Kansas School of Engineering.

The Chemical and Petroleum Engineering Discovery Lab is geared toward students ages 9-12, as well as prospective undergraduate students, and gives them opportunities to see real world applications for complex concepts of chemical and petroleum engineering. The lab was made possible through a $50,000 gift to KU Endowment from Occidental Petroleum.

“A lot of kids, if you ask them, ‘What’s an engineer?,’ they’ll tell you that it’s somebody who drives trains. All over the world, people have this same idea,” said Prajna Dhar, assistant professor of chemical and petroleum engineering and coordinator of the Discovery Lab. “We hope this lab can help get beyond that concept early on so that kids can start thinking of engineering as a career.”  

Engineering involves using science and math principles to design or create something or solve a problem. Materials in the Discovery Lab will consist of household items commonly found in the kitchen and garage. Displays will include freezing and melting chocolate to demonstrate fluid mechanics, using food coloring to show how water purification works and riding a stationary bike to generate enough energy to power light bulbs. 

“We believe that by presenting simple demonstrations using everyday materials found in most households, it will show that every one of us engineers things on an everyday basis, even if we do not realize it,” Dhar said. “Most people are not aware that many facets of industry actually need chemical engineers, be it for helping design the next perfumed detergent, making spreadable butter or ensuring that we can extract natural resources to power society ... chemical and petroleum engineers are everywhere.”

It’s also hoped the Discovery Lab will spur and sustain interest in engineering among girls in middle school. Studies show girls score as well as boys in science and engineering related topics in elementary school, but girls seem to lose interest in those fields around fifth grade.

“We want young girls to realize that engineering is not geeky or scary,” Dhar said. “We don’t have enough women in the work force, and I want girls to get interested in this early on.”

Frank Komin, president of Oxy Long Beach Inc., a subsidiary of Occidental Petroleum, said the company is proud to give back to KU.

“Oxy has had a presence at KU, recruiting consistently top-notch engineering students for the past 10 years, and we hope
 to continue to remain active,” Komin said. “This gift provides prospective students an opportunity to better understand the field of chemical and petroleum engineering in an interactive way.”

Groups or classes interested in visiting the Discovery Lab are encouraged to contact Dhar via email to set up an appointment.

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