Published November 7, 2023
A program using bicycles as an innovative way to get kids interested in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) has received a nearly $2 million National Science Foundation grant to ensure the practice continues.
Noemi Waight, associate professor of learning and instruction in the Graduate School of Education, and her team established STEMcyclists—a science and engineering summer cycling program where students learn the science, engineering principles and biomechanics of bikes and bike riding.
“All of us in the Graduate School of Education are grateful and delighted that the National Science Foundation selected STEMcyclists for funding. In keeping with UB’s commitment to bring the benefits of our research and scholarship to bear on the communities we serve, this project, spearheaded by Dr. Noemi Waight, uses an innovative approach to excite Buffalo high schoolers about STEM opportunities,” said Suzanne N. Rosenblith, dean of the Graduate School of Education.
“STEMcyclists creatively engages students in learning principles of engineering while emphasizing their own neighborhoods as asset-based learning environments,” Rosenblith added.
The grant, officially named “STEMcyclists: Black and Brown Youth Transforming Science and Engineering via Bikes,” uses bike and cycling-related activities to teach historically excluded youth, specifically ninth- and tenth-graders, about the intersection of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
“Primarily thinking about technologies that now come in these black boxes and recognizing that the bicycle is one of a few technologies that are still ‘transparent’ and not encased in a black box, which means that you can see the constituent parts of the bike,” Waight explained.
“You can see the individual systems that collectively make up the whole bike (another system). You can take it apart, re-build and remix it. You cannot do that with a television anymore. You can’t do that with most radios. We cannot do that anymore with computers. But with bikes there are numerous opportunities to examine technological systems, tear them apart and rebuild. This tinkering, messing about, remixing and re-envisioning is foundational to science and engineering,” Waight said.
As part of the program, participants will learn about safe cycling and will use the bikes to understand the biomechanics of biking and engage with STEM phenomena in their Buffalo community. Waight and her co-principal investigators and community partners designed the program to allow youth to engage in STEM opportunities right in their community, equipping them with the necessary skills and knowledge to pursue careers in these fields.
The goal of this project is to use bikes and biking-learning experiences to advance STEM opportunities for students of color, “honor their knowledge and brilliance, and nurture their STEM identities in preparation for STEM-related careers, and break down both conscious and unconscious racial barriers in Buffalo,” Waight said.
“Students of color have been historically excluded from STEM, and we wanted to use this program as a pathway for them to rethink what STEM could look like. Our students have said to us that they didn’t know that engineering and science was involved with bikes. And we have young women saying, ‘I can see myself as an engineer, I can see myself as specifically thinking about mechanical engineering,’” Waight said. “We are honored and grateful to the National Science Foundation for funding this project.”
At the end of the program, campers bring home bicycles, helmets and bike accessories that they keep after the program concludes. The program launched for the first time in July 2022; its success led to a second summer program this past July.
“This program, so far in the first two iterations, has exceeded our expectations. The youth that we have worked with have been amazing,” Waight said. “I just love seeing our students light up when they are able to accomplish something in this process.”
The kids participating in STEMcyclists work with Waight and community partners to not only look at the bike as a whole system, but to examine how it works in terms of forces—gyroscopic force, friction, gear rations, propulsion system and so on. This funding will also support youth with physical disabilities and visual impairments.
“They’re thinking about the wheels as a system on its own, and exploring specific components like truing the wheel, the hub and ball bearings, the role of the spokes. So when our students start to see all those parts come together and really understand those parts and its roles, and very importantly, being able to explain the science related to how these different parts of the system work, makes me really happy,” Waight said.
Bringing out the natural curiosity of children speaks to Waight as an educator, but it also reaches her on a personal level.
“I grew up in Belize, where under any moist rock you would find earth worms. I was that kid who loved experimenting on earth worms and watching them regenerate,” she said. “I also liked to catch grasshoppers in the tall grass and put them in bottles and just observe them, and I did that a lot. I would spend my evenings doing that. So, I was just naturally this very observant and curious kid.”
Waight says she still loves to explore and observe, which is why she enjoys biking around Buffalo. This is how she learned about the different communities, their history and culture. It’s also how she identified community partners for this program.
“Recognizing that bikes and biking is a pathway to do this work involves connections with communities,” Waight said.
STEMcyclists’ community partners are GoBikeBuffalo, Slow Roll Buffalo, and East Side Bike Club.
Other members of the team and co-PIs are Sarah A. Robert and Ryan Rish, both GSE associate professors of learning and instruction; Shakhnoza Kayumova, associate professor of STEM education at the University of Massachusetts Amherst; and Greses Pérez, assistant professor of engineering education at Tufts University.
Adam Ianni is the community workshop director for GoBikeBuffalo and says the partnership helps the program go beyond the academic realm.
“We hold a profound appreciation for the bicycle as a symbol of both educational empowerment and global betterment. The bicycle is a brilliant embodiment of STEM principles in action. It offers real-world insights into physics, with every ride highlighting the interplay of balance, force and mechanical dynamics. Over the years, advancements in bicycle technology have presented a riveting journey through material sciences and design evolution, making bicycles not just a mode of transportation, but also a dynamic classroom that fosters curiosity and critical thinking,” Ianni said.
Waight says that the program has been a real team effort that included Dawn Cobb, director and principal investigator of the Science and Technology Entry Program (STEP) at UB, who provided the opportunity to run the program as a pilot, as well as Ryan M. Rish, GSE associate professor of learning and instruction, GSE alum Jennifer Tripp, Sophie Wisoff and Darryl “Rodam” Marks, who were involved in the initial implementation.
“While we are kick-starting this program here in Buffalo, there’s so much potential for it to be initiated in so many other parts of the country as well as other countries,” Waight said.
Ianni says he also envisions the program’s reach beyond Buffalo.
“We are certain the project will bring dynamic education opportunities to area youth and help further our mission to harness the bicycle’s potential in shaping a greener, more inclusive future,” Ianni said. “Our commitment to the bicycle is fueled by its unparalleled potential to usher in a more sustainable and connected world.”