TAMPA — There was no school Saturday, but plenty of kids wanted to learn something.
They found out how to make bridges out of balsa wood and how to measure their own blood pressure. They launched bottle rockets and battled an adult-sized robot named Baxter, a champion Connect Four player.
“The kids get to see what their science classes can lead up to,” said Judith James of Lithia, who came to the expo with her husband and three daughters.
Organizers of the annual University of South Florida Engineering Expo estimated about 5,000 people stopped by during the two-day event. More than 80 USF student groups set up booths and exhibits to help educate visitors about everything from power and energy to antibiotics and the anatomy of the human eye.
The free event, which began Friday and continued Saturday, had about 90 different displays and interactive activities for elementary and middle school children. Sponsors included NASA, TECO, The Mosaic Company, Honeywell and Lockheed Martin.
The USF Engineering Expo was started as a fundraiser for the engineering college, said Paulette Skowronek, a USF senior studying chemical engineering and an organizer of the event. It has grown over the years into an opportunity to educate visitors about the university and the importance of science, technology, engineering and math education.
“It’s really important to get kids involved now in STEM education, and some day those future engineers will come back to USF,” she said.
On Saturday afternoon, kids swarmed around the College of Engineering and nearby buildings. They explored research labs, conducted experiments and jumped every few minutes when one of the student groups exploded a cannister full of ping pong balls.
Sean Volmuth, 14, and his mom drove from Clearwater from the expo, which he heard about on the news.
“I heard they have robot fights,” he said about why he wanted to stop by the expo.
Sherry Cabana and her 13-year-old daughter Sydney decided to stick around after dropping off her elder daughter with the Hillsborough High School robotics team.
The wandered over to a demonstration where they each put on a device that measured their brain activity and moved a ball based on the measurements.
“She was thinking of nothing and she still beat me hands down,” Cabana said about her daughter.
James, who comes from a family of engineers, said she and her husband like to bring their daughters to the expo every year. He oldest daughter, a freshman at USF, was working at the Society of Women Engineers’ non-Newtonian fluids table.
She said the family always wants to support science education events.
“It’s important that kids see what’s going on today,” James said.