Rocky River Middle School students gather around Catherine Kehl in an experimental neurobiology lab. Photo courtesy of Rocky River City Schools. 

ROCKY RIVER - Will we ever have flying cars? Who knows you better: Google or your next-door neighbor? What makes humans different than other animals?

These were a few of the many essay prompts more than 50 Rocky River Middle School students responded to, hoping to be included in a field trip to Case Western Reserve University to learn about STEM careers and research.

Of this group, math teacher Don MacDonald, seventh-grade science teacher Chandra Juhasz and technology teacher Matt England selected 26 students to head over to Case Nov. 21.

Students toured a biologically-inspired Robotics Laboratory run by Dr. Kathryn Daltorio, an assistant professor in the college’s School of Engineering Department of Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering. Daltorio is a friend of MacDonald’s, who presented her work at the middle school last year.

“Dr. Daltorio’s robotics research is inspired by animal behaviors that exceed current robot capabilities,” a press release explained.

“She and her students build a range of robotic prototypes that use fabrics, mechanical linkages, adhesives, servomotors and shape-memory alloy actuators, various sensors and cameras, soft and hard polymers, and modular 3D printed parts to explore new designs and control strategies.”

A functional lawnmower/giant scorpion was certainly a big draw for the students, who also toured the Larry Sears and Sally Zlotnick Sears think[box] lab, located in the college’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship; and the Virtual Worlds gaming and simulation laboratory with Dr. Michael Fu, a research assistant professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and an experimental neurobiology lab.

Students handled robots, played student-developed video games and grabbed lunch from a pizza vending machine.

Though this trip was a unique opportunity, all middle school students have a chance to learn about STEM. Each week MacDonald, Juhasz and England integrate a new STEM career into their classes each week.

McDonald said he hopes the trip conveyed that “this is a career path they can choose starting now.” It’s not out of reach. In fact, many of the Case students encouraged the middle school visitors to start volunteering in labs as young as the age of 16.

Seventh grader Sylvia Beck said, "I thought it was so cool to hear what the robotic engineers thought of how their robots could help humankind in the future.”

All of the students were excited, said Juhasz. A few days later, on Thanksgiving, she even received a photo from a parent, alerting her to the fact that her daughter was busy preparing for the holiday by dissecting a turkey heart.

“It’s not something that’s out of reach,” Juhasz tells her students about getting a PhD. “It is possible, and it could be you.”

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