Giuliana Huerta Mercado is a University of Michigan sophomore who says she had few opportunities to get hands-on experience in science when she attended high school in her native Peru.
She’s intent on changing that through the work of United Technologies for Kids (UTK), a non-governmental organization (NGO) startup that she created. UTK promotes science and technology education in developing countries, and implements STEM laboratories and programs in schools in partnership with student organizations both at Michigan and the University of California, Berkeley.
During the summer, college students travel to high schools in Peru and Latin America to teach courses on cutting-edge technologies such as 3D printing and design, electronics, programming, drones and biotechnology. They continue to work with the students remotely to help them prepare for a STEM fair, held in November. Selected projects are subsequently presented at UC-Berkeley in February, where students are invited to participate in workshops, tour Silicon Valley and visit area colleges.
"We are like a hub, a platform of transfer of knowledge from U.S. universities to high schools in Peru and Latin America,” Huerta Mercado said. “We want to inspire students in as many fields as we can." She adds that students are encouraged to use their education to solve real problems in their communities.
Recently, high school students in Lima, Peru, programmed a 3D printer to print out Yoda from Star Wars, Game of Thrones logos and models of several buildings. They later received their first programming experiences by coding in Python, programming electronics and building drones. And then they worked on building projects with social impact, such as a prosthetic hand, an automated irrigation system or a water contamination detector.
UTK began in 2016 with 25 students, and one private school willing to help offset some of the equipment and travel expenses. This year, the program expanded to 200 students from a dozen high schools; Huerta Mercado hopes to include Southeast Asia next.
Lawrence Teng, a fourth-year math student at U-M who plans to teach secondary school, traveled to Colombia with UTK this summer to work with students.
"It ended up being very collaborative, working a lot with the teachers and adapting to the students and what their experience and prior knowledge were," he said. "We started from scratch and they could adapt to their own interests and skills."
The program is already inspiring career path choices; 26 percent of students served changed their major preference to a STEM-related field after participation in the program.
"I decided I want to study electrical engineering because in UTK's STEM Lab Program I got involved in a lot of projects with Arduinos… I think that there is a potential to make a change in the world," said Lara Bellatin, a junior at Villa Caritas School in Lima. "I've seen projects like an electrical stabilizing spoon made for people with Parkinson's that will help them eat, and I think those kinds of projects will help make a difference in people's lives."
"My life changed 360 degrees after UTK's STEM Lab Program in my school because it opened doors, inspired and also empowered me to solve my problems by my own," said Rafaela Valencia, also a junior at Villa Caritas School. "It made me realize that I want to study product design because I want to be able to create something that is useful and helpful for society."
Adapted from an original story by Nardy Baeza Bickel, Hispanic Communications Manager, University of Michigan.