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Hundreds of people interact with exhibitors outside the Zachry Engineering Education Complex.
Over 5,000 high school and middle students and their families attended Night at the ZACH on March 24, 2023. Night at the ZACH is a Friday night extravaganza for anyone attending the Texas Science and Engineering Fair. | Image: Lauren Jenkins/Texas A&M Engineering
Texas A&M University’s Zachary Engineering Education Complex hummed with the energy of over 1,000 of Texas’ top middle school and high school students who were participating in Night at the ZACH on Friday, March 24. The event marked the opening of the 2023 Texas Science and Engineering Fair (TXSEF), with the actual competition continuing over the weekend. 

Night at the ZACH gave these outstanding students an opportunity to interact with Texas A&M students; learn more about science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) initiatives in the university and at partnering organizations; participate in hands-on STEM activities; and explore the Zachary complex. “When the Spark! office became the home of TXSEF, we wanted to showcase Texas A&M STEM opportunities alongside the competition,” said Shelly Tornquist, director of Texas A&M Engineering’s Spark! PK-12 Engineering Education Outreach. “Night at the ZACH has grown each year and this year included over 5,000 guests.”

Night at the ZACH was also open to the participants’ families, many of whom brought younger brothers and sisters to the event. “I love to see the families here because that means the students have support, which is critical for someone who wants to major in STEM,” said ExxonMobil community relations advisor Lupe Bustamante. “It’s not always an easy path, so it’s really great to see them have supportive families who are bringing them to this event and exposing them to all the activities here tonight.”

A wealth of opportunities

Night at the ZACH provided TXSEF participants the opportunity to interact with exhibitors. TXSEF Maroon Sponsor ExxonMobil transfixed students, teachers and family members with the antics of Spot, the robotic dog. “The reaction has been awesome. A lot of the kids and people here are enjoying seeing it,” said ExxonMobil’s robotics engineer Nicolas Echeyarria, who was responsible for controlling Spot. “They can’t get enough of it. One little girl has been here probably for the past 45 minutes hanging out with Spot.”

This year also included Gold Sponsor Lockheed Martin, which brought its F-35 cockpit demonstration simulator, drawing a long line of students interested in climbing into the cockpit. 

Other exhibits focused on mobile gaming, the ZedaSoft drone virtual reality training simulation, the Texas A&M Formula SAE car and AggieLemons racing. Additionally, students checked out the booth for Building Researchers and Innovators in Neuroscience and Society’s (BRAINS) animal brains display, which described the power of neuroscience among species, as well as the Texas A&M Office for Youth Engagement booth, which shared a college navigation and planning guide. 

Participants also had the opportunity to take pictures with Reveille X, watch a performance by the Aggie Wranglers and meet members of Texas A&M’s Corps of Cadets.

Jenna Mariano, Melek Octurek and Kaitlynn Nguyen, all students at Harmony School of Innovation in Fort Worth, described Night at the ZACH as “very welcoming.” They enjoyed exploring the variety of projects and programs highlighted that night, such as booths on hacking and a smart grid center.

Texas A&M students who were in attendance believed the event offered these high school and middle school students a sneak peek into where the study of STEM could lead. “It’s cool to be exposed to a bunch of different engineering concepts and projects that people have done,” said Brooklyn Amaro, a mechanical engineering major who will graduate in 2025. “I wish I could have come to something like this just to see what engineering is all about instead of thinking, ‘It’s just math.’ I could have seen it with my own eyes.” 

Anticipating the next day

In addition to exploring the various booths around the Zachary complex, meeting new friends and grabbing dinner at a variety of food trucks, the TXSEF participants also anticipated the opportunity to share their projects with judges the next day.

For example, Mariano created an experiment to analyze the dissolving rate of various drugs that use acetaminophen. Octurk’s project was designed to determine the fastest way to calculate the area of irregular shapes, while Nguyen used her project to explore pattern memorization.

Three juniors from the Texas Academy of Math and Science also mentally prepared for the next day’s competition. Manan Patel’s project focused on molds used to analyze cancer cells, while Nikhil Sunkavalli worked on a project with nanoparticles. Their classmate, Adityn Singinkindy, explored using data analysis to predict wildfires. 

David Anand and Hans-Arno Ladd, students at Harmony Science Academy in Carrollton, were also happy to talk about their projects, which included a computer program that analyzed grammatical patterns, while waiting in line for their turn in the Lockheed Martin flight simulator. 

Sharing their knowledge

Night at the ZACH is also designed to give TXSEF participants a chance to see the next stage of their academic journey by meeting college students majoring in STEM fields. These Aggies served as role models by sharing what college is like and the various types of available STEM degrees. “Night at the ZACH is a great opportunity to talk to younger students and tell them about the engineering programs here. For example, in our booth, we’re talking about the freshman-year coding class,” said sophomore Anna Khan, a biomedical engineering major who was assisting at the Society of Women Engineers booth. “When I was younger, I would have loved to come to an event like this and get to know more about what I was getting myself into.”

Ultimately, TXSEF creates an opportunity for these bright students to begin to picture their future on a college campus as they prepare for a STEM career. “The beautiful thing about events like this is that for some of these students, it’s the first time that they’ve been 30 miles outside the radius of their hometown to come to College Station, Texas,” said Dr. Valerie Segovia, director of the Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station’s Nuclear Power Institute. “The most spectacular part of this is being on the Texas A&M campus. It’s inspirational and aspirational by planting these seeds for lifelong learning.”