Students work with a microscope
Students work with a microscope

Young students are 'Roadrunners For a Day'

By Amanda Beck
Communications Specialist, College of Sciences

(Nov. 11, 2008)--Fifth and sixth grade students from Elm Creek Elementary in the Southwest Independent School District in San Antonio recently visited UTSA to experience life as a college student.

The students participated in Roadrunner for a Day, a program run through the Office of P-20 Initiatives that brings elementary and middle school students to UTSA to experience college life. Since its inception in 2003, thousands of students have walked through the program and the halls of the 1604 Campus.

The Elm Creek students learned about rocks and fossils in their class last year when Stuart Birnbaum, UTSA associate professor of geological sciences, visited their school. Birnbaum worked with teacher Kriesti Bunch, Manuel Maldonado, Roadrunner for a Day program manager, and the College of Sciences event management team to bring the students to campus.

Early Thursday morning, two yellow school buses delivered the Elm Creek students from southwest San Antonio to the 1604 Campus. Maldonado described the benefits of a college education and invited three student athletes and members of the Delta Sigma Phi fraternity to address the elementary students. Each speaker pulled from his or her experiences to explain how studying hard leads to accomplishing dreams.

UTSA tennis player Karen Scida, a junior chemistry major from Argentina, expressed her passion for learning. "I love chemistry!" she said. She then asked a student his favorite subject; he said it was reading. Scida said that whatever the students' passion -- chemistry, reading, sports or something else -- focusing on school will help them achieve their goals.

The students split into three groups to rotate through sessions after the opening remarks. The first session centered on the basics of engineering. Hosted by Roadrunner for a Day veterans, the Society of Mexican American Engineers and Scientists, the presentation was tailored to the young audience. As soon as a PowerPoint slide with sports cars flashed on the screen, students yelled out in excitement.

The second session combined science and engineering and centered on using the scanning electron microscope. Pam Colby of the College of Engineering walked the students through the preparation of samples and viewing them on the microscope.

The third session was split between two locations. Students filtered into the Rock Lab on the basement floor of the Science Building to learn about the types of rocks and what scientists hope to learn by studying them. Brandon Christie, a graduate student studying under Associate Professor Lance Lambert, told the young students about sedimentary rocks. "All rocks look the same, right?" he began. The kids promptly answered, "No." Christie replied, "Good," and then described the three types of rocks -- igneous, sedimentary and metamorphic -- and showed them examples of rocks with crystals and fossils.

Christie then explained how scientists use a rock saw to cut rocks into smaller pieces to get a better look at the fossils inside. After viewing the cut rocks, the students walked to the Biotechnology, Sciences and Engineering Building to view paper-thin slices of rocks under a microscope. Mary Finch, another UTSA geological sciences graduate student, explained how scientists learn about the composition of the rocks by looking at their properties and colors.

A spontaneous fourth session was led by Birnbaum at an area of campus with large boulders. Birnbaum began by explaining the rocks' origin -- in the aquifer -- but the conversation was quickly directed by the students' questions.

"How do scientists know the rocks are 75 million years old?" and "How was it ocean then, but not now?"

Birnbaum answered the questions and provoked more as he continued his lesson. At the end of the session, one boy approached Birnbaum and said, "Thank you for teaching me something new today."

Although the students laughed and joked throughout the day, many of them excitedly repeated facts they had learned. After the event, one student told her teacher that she was going to become a geologist.

In an e-mail to Assistant Event Manager Kai Kamaka, Bunch said the College of Sciences "had better watch out because enrollment at UTSA will increase dramatically in 2016!"

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