Tech Changers Outreach Event on 11/18/2019

How can we nurture historically underserved middle and high school students and prepare them to pursue rewarding careers in science and technology? Lisa Wenzel, President and Executive Director (A) of Tech Changers, believes she has the answer. Founded in Fall 2019, Tech Changers is a 501c3 focused on creating a diverse community of youth makers, technologists, leaders, and innovators. Part of their mission is to support after-school programs aimed at helping students to discover and foster their passion for STEM and computing. One of their programs, CoEd Tech Changer Maker Space Mondays @ USRA STEMaction Center, was piloted in the Fall with a mission to connect experts in the STEM community with youth in Howard County, Maryland.

GTS employee (8+ years) Dr. Nicholas Strnad recently volunteered as a mentor for the new program. There, he discussed technology career pathways in Defense Contracting and Army Civilian Service. Afterward, he presented a brief lesson on the atomic structures of conventional materials such as iron, gold, and sodium chloride (table salt), among others. One important takeaway was that some of the properties at the macro-scale originate from the bond structure at the atomic-scale. The students then put their newly obtained knowledge to the test in a hands-on activity called the Gumdrop Challenge.

The Gumdrop Challenge is an activity where students create atomic models of varying difficulty from toothpicks and gumdrops. The gumdrops served as the atomic nuclei, while the toothpicks served as the bond distance (though the models were not made to scale). The students formed two teams for the challenge and worked together to complete the models. The teams created accurate models with very little intervention from the instructor, despite having learned the core concepts just minutes prior. Dr. Strnad stated that he adapted the lesson from a project he did as an undergraduate in college.


Pictured Left: Steven and Adrianna admiring their completed atomic models
Pictured Right: Andrew, Morgaine, and Stevia in a period of intense focus


The teams were quite evenly matched and required a tie-breaking challenge to determine the winner. The tie-breaker ended up being a lead zirconate-titanate (PZT) crystal, which was a significant focus of Dr. Strnad’s Ph.D. dissertation.

Dr. Strnad holding up the “tie-breaking” PZT model


Ms. Wenzel hopes that the Gumdrop Challenge, along with activities in the other Maker Space Mondays, help to allow the students to take risks in a safe environment. More information about Tech Changers can be found at, whereas instructions for how to volunteer as a mentor can be found here: