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Passionate professor shares love of science with kids

Vicky Doan-Hguyen talks to middle-schoolers, while engineering student volunteers watch in the background.Professor Vicky Doan-Nguyen holds molecular models while talking to middle-schoolers about phosphorescent materials.

Vicky Doan-Nguyen taps into kids’ innate curiosity to get them excited about science.

Professor Vicky Doan-Nguyen holds molecular models while talking to middle-schoolers about phosphorescent materials.

An assistant professor of materials science and engineering, Doan-Nguyen spends a lot of time thinking about how to spark kids’ interest in science and maintain it. She also wants every child—especially girls—to know that anyone can be a scientist or engineer.

Since joining the Ohio State faculty in August 2017, Doan-Nguyen has not only been recognized for her research accomplishments, she’s also spearheading two outreach programs that are successfully engaging central Ohio kids in STEM.

Unlike those kids, Doan-Nguyen was introduced to engineering relatively late in life.

She immigrated with her family to the U.S. from Vietnam at the age of six and wasn’t exposed to engineering until the summer after her junior year at Yale University, where she was double-majoring in chemistry, and women’s and gender studies. That summer, Doan-Nguyen helped a materials scientist with thermoelectric power research at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, California. That experience set her on the path to becoming a materials science and engineering professor.

As a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, Doan-Nguyen volunteered with middle-schoolers and saw firsthand that students ages 10 to 12 are especially receptive to learning about science.

“That’s a great time to start talking to students about science and go into depth about the scientific concepts they’re learning in class,” she explained. “And get them to start thinking, ‘This is something I could really be interested in and pursue as a career.’”

Scouting for outreach partnerships

After arriving at Ohio State, Doan-Nguyen began looking for community groups with limited resources to partner with and test some informal educational modules. At a colleague’s recommendation, she contacted the Girl Scouts of Ohio’s Heartland. Organizers were excited about the idea and the first Scoping Out Solar Energy day was held in March 2018, with an encore in April 2019.

Doan-Nguyen points to a model car that a girl is building.Prof. Doan-Nguyen helps a Girl Scout build a battery-operated model car.During the 2019 event, the hallways of Ohio State’s high-tech Nanotech West Laboratory and Center for Electron Microscopy and Analysis were filled with 25 Girl Scouts who were delighted to learn about renewable energy and storage, as well as electron microscopy. Doan-Nguyen also led discussions about the economics of electrification and gender stereotypes related to STEM. Seventeen Ohio State engineering students volunteered their time to help mentor the Scouts.

But the best part—if you ask the Girl Scouts—was building and racing battery- and solar-powered model cars.

“It’s really fun!” said Jaylee. “I like getting to know how to work the car and building it. And I liked racing it.”

The Scouts’ enthusiasm is one of Doan-Nguyen’s favorite aspects of working with children.

“Our students are just really hungry sponges and we should tap into that,” Doan-Nguyen said. “Even on a Saturday morning when students could be sleeping in, they were excited to come and learn about how they can invent sustainable, next-generation technology for energy production and energy storage.”

Sparking kids interest in science

Following the success of the 2018 Girl Scouts event, Doan-Nguyen began a second partnership with the Gladden Community House—a non-profit agency on Columbus’ west side that provides education and other support programs for residents.

The Science Partnerships and Resources for Kids (SPARK) program launched in fall 2018. Together with ten Ohio State engineering student volunteers, Doan-Nguyen conducted monthly hands-on activities with 15 to 35 fifth-graders who participated in Gladden House’s afterschool program. The projects ranged from circuitry and battery-making to activities that also incorporate art, such as painting and making bracelets with phosphorescent materials.

The program exposes kids to renewable energy and materials science concepts; as well as what scientists and engineers do in real-life.

“Vicky Doan-Nguyen provided an excellent service in science to our middle and high school youth. Each month the number of youth staying for science grew. They wanted to try more and learn whatever Vicky and her students brought,” explained Gladden House Education Coordinator Roger Wycoff.

A graduate student and three male middle-schoolers wear gloves while placing hot glue in clear tubes.Catrina Wilson, a materials science and engineering graduate student, helps middle-schoolers make glow-in-the-dark bracelets at Gladden Community House.A key to SPARK’s success is having a committed group of engineering student mentors who form relationships with the fifth-graders.

“I wanted to establish a connection that, these are the faces that you’ll be seeing month and month again, and they’re invested in your growth and also in the growth of the community,” Doan-Nguyen explained.

The majority of the Buckeye engineers are first- and second-year undergraduate students, which helps them relate to the experience of learning new science and engineering concepts.

“I find that it’s helpful to have students who are also brand new to engineering to really excite younger students and say, ‘This is also hard for me and it’s okay,’” Doan-Nguyen said.

The Ohio State students said they also benefit from the collaboration through improved work-life balance and practicing how to communicate science to the public. Plus it’s fun.

“I find teaching really rewarding,” said Dagny Sacksteder, a materials science and engineering major. “It’s really fun to interact with the kids and try and get them inspired about the things I’m inspired about.”

Funding for the outreach programs was provided by the Honda-Ohio State Partnership and several Ohio State University partners. Doan-Nguyen has applied for external funding and hopes to continue the momentum next school year.

“It’s really fun to be around students who are just so creative and so curious,” Doan-Nguyen said. “It gets you to rethink what you think is possible.”

by Candi Clevenger, College of Engineering Communications, clevenger.87@osu.edu