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Feature Story | Argonne National Laboratory

Argonne introduces new hydropower activity for STEM fests

Argonne’s newest STEM fest activity engages youth in fun, hands-on science, technology, engineering and mathematics

The lab’s newest activity for STEM fests propels STEM education outreach forward — with a literal turbine!

This fall, when students visit a local STEM fest (a fair themed around science, technology, engineering and mathematics), if the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory has been invited to participate at that event, the students will discover that Argonne offers a fun activity to explore at STEM fests: hydropower. When the flow of water moves machines to produce energy, you get hydropower, and it’s something that students can experience themselves.

Students will select from different kinds of turbine blades (circular, triangle, square, etc.) and attach them with magnets to a spinning device on a horizontal rod, which in turn is linked to a string and cup hanging in the air. By pouring water into the turbine, the blades will spin and rotate the rod, pulling the string and making the cup move up or down. Depending on the shape of the blades, the height from which students pour, and extra weights added to the cup, they’ll get different results.

It was great seeing everyone have fun. STEM fests help us connect communities and individual students to hands-on science. As people visit our table at various STEM fests, our new activity will impact thousands of students.” — Brandon Pope, Argonne’s STEM education outreach coordinator

Once they have learned how to run the turbine, participants can potentially take on an even bigger challenge. Instead of pulling a cup, the turbine will power a motor that lights up an LED; the blades need to spin fast to turn on the motor, thus putting participants’ skills to the test.

Argonne intern Vanessa Garcia helped develop the new activity for STEM fests by first creating a prototype and then making further improvements throughout her time at the lab.

For the hydropower STEM fest activity, participants insert 3D-printed blades onto a rod, which will turn when water is poured onto them. (Image by Argonne National Laboratory.)

It was originally designed to be a take-home activity, with instructions so people could make the turbine themselves out of cardboard,” Garcia said. When we decided to make hydropower this year’s activity, we took the at-home activity and developed it further. For instance, instead of cardboard, which falls apart after soaking up water, we 3D-print the pieces.”

Argonne officially launched the new hydropower activity for the first time at Northern Illinois University’s (NIU) STEM Fest on Sept. 30, and the South Side Science Festival, hosted by the University of Chicago, also on Sept. 30. At both events, the activity proved popular with youth and adult attendees alike.

It was great seeing everyone have fun,” said Brandon Pope, Argonne’s STEM education outreach coordinator. Pope ran the hydropower activity at the South Side event alongside Garcia. STEM fests help us connect communities and individual students to hands-on science. As people visit our table at various STEM fests, our new activity will impact thousands of students.”

Differently shaped blades can be inserted, and the shape will affect how the turbine spins. (Image by Argonne National Laboratory.)

Argonne’s Institutional Partnerships team is studying the results of these events to make minor improvements for the activity. They will then make a video about it to train volunteers, as well as a facilitator’s guide. These will enable Argonne to feature the event at numerous STEM fests and other outreach events throughout the year.

We like to feature a different activity each year at STEM fests so youth can explore and discover something new and relevant,” said Jessica Burgess, Argonne’s STEM education partnership and outreach manager. She launched the activity at NIU’s STEM fest, and she was pleased with the results. The hydropower activity has transitioned well from a take-home project into something we can highlight at STEM events, and we hope that many people of all ages will enjoy experimenting with it through the year.”

Argonne National Laboratory seeks solutions to pressing national problems in science and technology. The nation’s first national laboratory, Argonne conducts leading-edge basic and applied scientific research in virtually every scientific discipline. Argonne researchers work closely with researchers from hundreds of companies, universities, and federal, state and municipal agencies to help them solve their specific problems, advance America’s scientific leadership and prepare the nation for a better future. With employees from more than 60 nations, Argonne is managed by UChicago Argonne, LLC for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit https://​ener​gy​.gov/​s​c​ience.