HUNTINGTON - Madison Smith's love of science was developed through numerous hands-on field trips she took while in school in Charleston.

"Especially with kids, they are really hands-on and that's how they remember," said Smith, now a senior in Marshall University's College of Education and Professional Development. "Let them take ownership of their own learning. Let them question it without feeding them the information."

On Wednesday, Smith helped provide that experience for about 300 Cabell and Putnam county elementary school students during the CEPD's third annual Sky Festival on Huntington's campus.

CEPD, College of Science and other university departments staffed 16 activity stations, assisted by Huntington High School educators and local television meteorologists Brandon Stover, Joseph Fitzwater and Andy Chilian.

Organizer Tina Cartwright, a CEPD professor, said students were introduced to a number of meteorology and astronomy topics, including moon phases, gravitational waves, a demonstration using drones, and building and launching rockets.

"We want to get students excited about science, teach them a little bit, but hopefully expose them to the beauty of Marshall's campus so hopefully they will be inspired to come back to Marshall and, ideally, go into a science," Cartwright said.

A focus on the stars and the sky is a great way to pique student interest into science because it stokes their natural curiosity about what they already observe, Cartwright said.

"Ultimately, I was inspired for my career choice from visiting the National Weather Service," Cartwright said. "Most of what we learn that sticks with us happens outside the classroom. That inspired me as a first-generation West Virginia native - neither of my parents went to college - to really think about it.

"That's what I told everybody: I wanted to be a meteorologist when I grew up. That's what I hope to facilitate for these kids when they come to campus, to be exposed to professionals in these careers and talk to them about how they became interested."

Rachel Spychalski, a CEPD senior from Parkersburg, West Virginia, said it can be hard to find the time to teach science in a hands-on way, which makes it difficult for children to develop a love of science.

"I heard some great questions just hearing them talk amongst each other that would make good research questions," she said.

Smith said she hopes the event fosters a love of science in girls specifically.

"We have such a low number of girls in our program," Smith said.

Smith and Spychalski said at a young age, boys are pushed more toward STEM because of gender stereotypes and the myth that males are more naturally science-minded. By middle school, studies show girls' confidence in STEM dramatically decreases.

Sky Fest is sponsored by the EPSCoR RII Track-1: Gravitational Wave Astronomy and the Appalachian Freshwater Initiative.

Follow reporter Taylor Stuck on Twitter and Facebook @TaylorStuckHD.

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