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Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
Wesley Perkins builds a Spout Bot at the Engineering Learning Festival, taught by seven students from MIT and Harvard, at The Leonardo in Salt Lake City on Saturday, July 25, 2015.

SALT LAKE CITY — For aspiring high achieving students, getting the opportunity to interact with and learn from some of the best and brightest young scientific minds in America for two whole days — for free — would be one of the “coolest things ever,” as one student put it.

About 50 local students took advantage of that opportunity by enrolling in a two-day program on Friday and Saturday at The Leonardo that focused on technology and engineering.

Seven MIT and Harvard engineering students led an engineering learning festival at The Leonardo museum of science, innovation and art where they mentored young students about the possibilities of education in STEM — science, technology, engineering and math.

The Leonardo was selected as one of 12 locations nationwide for Spokes America this summer. The team of computer science, robotics and engineering students are biking across the United States as part of an effort to rethink STEM education. Along the nearly 3,000-mile transcontinental route, the team stops at schools, libraries and education camps to conduct learning festivals.

Participants build a robot and program a computer.

“It’s been cool to talk to talk to people that are really smart and interested in similar things such as physics and (computer) programming,” said Ross Kilpatrick, 14, who will be a ninth grader at West High School. “I’ve liked being able to interact with the instructors who have had experience that is greater than my own.”

Lillian Taylor, 17, a junior at Itineris Early College High School in West Jordan, said she would like to study engineering and computer science in college. In particular, she would one day like to design prosthetic limbs for wounded soldiers, “because they shouldn’t have to suffer for helping us.”

She said the experience of being around such like-minded students and instructors “was a lot of fun.”

“It gave me hope and inspiration to see that these (instructors) are kind of normal and that I could attempt to get into a prestigious school like them,” Taylor said. “They are down to earth, so it made me feel a little bit more relaxed about (taking part).”

The goal of the overall program is to help the students develop a better understanding of how STEM fields work and also to add a creative aspect as well by including an art component to the workshop lessons, explained Nick Hoffmann, school programs manager at The Leonardo.

“We do STEAM education (science, technology, engineering, art and math)," he said. “We try to integrate all of our projects with different artistic aspects.”

The robotics engineering group designed and built robots that looked like beetles, thereby adding an art component to the technical portion of the lesson, he noted.

A “twist of creativity and fun” often stimulates interest in some students who may not enjoy the “pure seriousness” of some STEM fields, he said. Including art can frequently get more kids engaged in the process and be more willing to participate in what might otherwise not be of particular interest, he added.

“Both (STEM and art) are important, but the arts integration aspect really does let you reach a much broader audience,” Hoffmann said.

Besides learning about computer science and robotics, students also made short music videos to allow students to use their creativity using their own programming skills, he said.

“It’s a great way to expand your audience and also show (students) that these fields don’t have to be as serious as the world can make them seem sometimes,” Hoffmann said.

Drew Bent, who is studying physics and electrical engineering at MIT, was one of the adventurous and dedicated students who signed up to teach at a dozen festivals while riding thousands of miles across the country. He said the experience thus far has been quite rewarding.

“It’s gone really well,” he said. “It’s been awesome just to see how engaged all the students are and also how creative they are.”

Salt Lake City was the 10th stop on the 12-stop cross-country route. While the cycling part of the experience has often been physically demanding, the mental part of the program has been even more challenging, he said.

“Some of us feel that the teaching days are more exhausting than the biking days,” Bent said. “You spend a lot of time standing up, but also intellectually you have to stay engaged and enthusiastic in order to keep the students enthusiastic.”

He said no festival is the same from city to city, and that has “kept us on our toes.”

Because he has an interest in the education system, Bent said he expects this experience to help him gain a better understanding of how to improve the educational experience “as a whole” for young students.

“Having this 'hands on' experience is teaching me how (educators) can connect better with students in the classroom,” he said.

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