November 1, 2017

Game Day STEM Event Exposes Football Fans to UGA Research

Photo Credit: Ryan Silbert

One of the groups at Saturday’s STEMzone event, ECOGIG, will bring an underwater robot that Bulldog fans can drive.

Reni Kaul emerged from her home onto the streets of downtown on Apr. 22. Her dog, Cray—a wagging ball of browns, whites and blacks described by Kaul as a “mutt with eyebrows”—happily walked alongside her, pink tongue hanging, greeting visitors with a small sign attached to his side that read “Science Keeps Me Healthy.”

She was on her way to join a crowd of Athens residents on the post office lawn for the March for Science. G-Day, UGA’s annual spring scrimmage game, happened to fall on the same day, and tailgaters armed in red and black also wandered downtown, discussing this year’s team and preparing for the game ahead.  

Kaul was accustomed to others noticing Cray because of the sometimes-too-energetic way he greets strangers. But today, Kaul saw both smiles and sneers. People were seeing Cray and his brown cardboard sign in a way she had not intended, and they were reacting.

The PhD candidate at the Odum School of Ecology is a scientist. But she is also a UGA lover. She noticed an unspoken division in Athens that day, and she found it disheartening. “I felt a little bit torn as far as we had these two groups with overlapping interests, but instead of coming together, we went our separate ways, reinforcing our differences,” she says.

But Kaul saw an opportunity to bridge the gap between these communities, and in response, she founded a science outreach event—STEMzone UGA. During this event, UGA graduate students in STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and math) will highlight their research in an interactive format. Participants will drive underwater robots, extract DNA from strawberries, build super-bouncy balls by manipulating different polymers, and meet snakes from the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory. The list goes on, and Kaul is excited for researchers to share the impact of their work.  

“I’m coming at this event because not only do I love science, I know that research done at UGA can make people’s lives better, whether that means that their parents live longer, their kids are healthier, their costs at the grocery store are lower,” she says. “I think science has a real value that not everybody is aware of, and so this event is a way to start that conversation with the idea that we’re all coming to the table with the commonality of loving UGA.”

Although Kaul notes that Athens is already home to several wonderful science events, “events like STEMzone are able to reach a larger community of people who wouldn’t necessarily seek out these opportunities,” she says, such as busy parents with jobs and young children.

This event is of personal significance to Kaul, who lost her mother, a third-grade science teacher, five years ago. Often the guinea pig on trial runs of her mother’s classroom experiments, Kaul feels she benefited from having a hands-on science education in her youth and has carried on her mother’s legacy. “As an adult, I’ve now taken the legacy that my mom has left and picked it up with my nieces and nephews, and even any random little kid, because who doesn’t get excited about robots or oozy, slimy things, or bugs, or snakes, or whatever your little kid’s heart’s desire is? It’s just really rewarding to be able to share my passion with other people,” she says.

The first of what Kaul hopes will become an annual event will be held on the Miller Learning Center lawn during the home game against South Carolina on Nov. 4 from 11 a.m.–3:30 p.m. The MLC lawn is located around the corner from where the Dawg Walk takes place, so interested parties can simply “take the longer route” to get to the stadium. Updates and teasers will be posted on the event’s Facebook page (search for “STEMzone UGA”). The rain date for the event is the Nov. 18 home game against Kentucky.

As for the future of this event, Kaul is in the last stages of her PhD program, but she hopes that someone will carry STEMzone on after she leaves UGA and that more events like this will be offered on campus. “If you got me really dreaming big, it would be awesome if we could have an SEC-wide or an NCAA-wide science and football Saturday,” she says. “Regardless of what campus you go to, you’re going to hear about some awesome research that’s done at the campus that you’re visiting. But that’s pie in the sky. Baby steps first.”