Two days a week, a group of high school students has been gathering after school at Penn State Center Pittsburgh to explore the future, learn from others, and make an impact through CITY. Each school year, the CITY (Community Innovation Training for Youth) program provides students with unique out-of-classroom learning experiences and aims to help students create individualized pathways to life success.
“CITY is such a unique program for high school students who may be unsure of what comes next,” said Emma Hance, CITY program manager at Penn State Center Pittsburgh. “A major component is showing them engaging opportunities they may otherwise not be able to experience, as many are from marginalized and underserved communities and are historically underrepresented in STEAM careers. It provides a different environment from a traditional classroom, where they may have had trouble succeeding.”
This school year, several students from the Pittsburgh public schools have joined the program. Each week, the group meets to explore science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics (STEAM). On Tuesdays, they visit with the Citizen Science Lab to study aquaponics and environmental sustainability. Through this initiative, students learn about the science behind aquaponics and set up and maintain their own system — growing plants that will be used for clean-eating cooking demonstrations and/or making natural skincare products.
On Thursdays, the students work together on hands-on activities. So far this year, the students have conducted some interesting experiments, including:
- Sugar Snake Fire: Students combined a few household ingredients to create a snake rising from the ground. They mixed sand, sugar, and baking soda with lighter fluid in a pie tin and lit it on fire. The mixture bubbles and grows into a snake-like shape. CITY students experimented with the ingredients and how they were mixed and layered in the pie tin to create different forms. It’s a good thing they conducted this experiment out of doors! Learn more about the Sugar Snake experiment.
- Rock Candy: The students got to conduct an experiment and make a snack with this activity. All it took was sugar and water to observe the shape of sugar crystals on a giant scale. The group followed a recipe and created their own jar of candy to watch over time and eventually eat. Make your own rock candy.
- Eggshell Geode Crystals: Students got to see how real-life geodes are formed in igneous and sedimentary rock. They used clean eggshells and a variety of soluble solutions (baking soda, borax, sugar, rock salt, and table salt) to observe the creation of crystals over time. Students had to test their patience when cleaning out the delicate eggshells, as any leftover membrane would affect the outcome of the experiment. Over time, each solution developed unique and interesting crystals. Create your own eggshell geodes.
- Hoop Gliders: For this engineering experiment, students used card stock, paper straws, a ruler, and tape to make a glider. Many of the students made gliders that resembled a traditional plane, and they flew with varying degree of success. The leaders then showed students a hoop glider, which flew farther than any of the existing gliders. After that, students made their own hoop gliders and began experimenting with the design and proportions of the glider to try to maximize its flight capacity. Explore the science behind hoop gliders.
- Engineering Design Build Challenges: During a lesson on engineering design, students experienced a few different building challenges by using different materials. The first activity was to build the tallest freestanding tower with just six pieces of paper and two meters of tape in 15 minutes. The tallest tower was 46 inches! The second challenge tasked students with creating a structure using three sheets of paper and two meters of tape that would cantilever off the side of the table. Another activity was the Pringle Ringle, which used Pringles to create a freestanding circle.
- Milk Plastic: Students learned about monomers and polymers through an experiment focused on milk plastic (more commonly known as casein plastic). The group combined hot milk with vinegar and began to see small curds forming in the mixture. This happens because adding an acid to the milk changes the milk’s pH, which causes the casein molecules to unfold and then reorganize into a long chain (also known as a polymer). Students tried the experiment with a couple of different kinds of acids — vinegar, lemon juice, and orange juice — and a few different types of milk and found that the skim milk and vinegar formed the strongest polymer. Try the milk plastic experiment at home.
- Bouncing Eggs: To set up the bouncing eggs experiment, students soaked raw eggs in vinegar for a week. They then removed the eggs from the cups of vinegar and tried bouncing them and testing from different heights. Once the eggs broke, students started playing around with the egg yolk and white and found that the consistency of both had changed. Since eggshells are made of calcium carbonate, the acid in the vinegar reacts with the shell to produce carbon dioxide, producing small bubbles. Over time, the vinegar starts to dissolve the shell, leaving only the thin membrane of the egg, which can bounce at different heights.
- Igniting Pumpkins: For some experiments, the bigger lesson happens when things don’t work out. The students tried to do an experiment to “light” a pumpkin on fire, burning green, blue, and orange. To do this, they smeared a pumpkin with hand sanitizer and dusted it with borax before igniting the pumpkin to see a multicolored flame. The group tried doing the experiment with a whole pumpkin, a hollowed-out pumpkin, and a makeshift Jack-O-Lantern, but didn’t have much luck. Even though the experiment itself didn’t work, the students brainstormed different approaches to try to achieve the intended result and had some productive discussions about the fact that things don’t always go as planned.
- Edible Halloween Slime: Students mixed melted Starbursts, powdered sugar, and cornstarch to create their own slime, giving it the consistency of Silly Putty. When the powdered sugar and cornstarch were kneaded into the melted Starbursts, air bubbles were incorporated into the candy, which made the candy lighter and stretchier, allowing you to pull and mold the candy like slime.