Earlier this month my son’s school held its first dedicated science exploration day. This key event in the academic calendar gave students a greater awareness of how important science is to every aspect of our lives and provided fantastic opportunities for learning about science through a variety of educational activities.
The event itself was specifically designed to cater for students from kindergarten through to 5th grade. A number of classes were offered simultaneously throughout the day on topics as diverse as DNA extraction, stem cell research, germs and health, energy conservation and safety, river biology and infrared spectrometry.
The blue ribbon activity was undoubtedly an energy conservation presentation given by experts in the energy industry that not only highlighted differences between renewable and non-renewable forms of energy but also emphasized the need to preserve our natural resources. These same experts also gave a prop-filled talk on safety issues surrounding the use of electricity and natural gas. Building on the conservation theme, students got up close and personal with river water by finding and classifying the many types of aquatic insects that live in Wisconsin’s trout streams.
Creativity was clearly at the heart of successfully conveying key scientific concepts. One of the visiting scientists brought the world of molecules to life by introducing some of the instruments routinely used in identifying the chemical composition of industrial materials. Others used wooden blocks to help students visualize the physical constraints that define architectural construction. And for the more mathematically minded, there was even a crash course on statistics and probability using coin tossing experiments.
Fifth graders were later given the chance to learn about DNA by performing their very own DNA extractions from wheat germ samples. With just a tube of wheat germ in hand, a supply of SDS and a dash of ethanol, two classes-full of budding young scientists were able to isolate DNA and learn about its role in heredity. The school was also immensely privileged to have a representative from the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF) give a talk on the fundamentals of stem cell research.
With the flu season ominously close, the school wanted to hammer home the importance of good infection control, particularly as relates to hand cleanliness. To get its message across, the school ordered several bottles of a lotion that fluoresces with UV light called Glo Germ™ for the event. By holding their lotion-‘soiled’ hands under a UV lamp, students recorded the number of washes required to leave their skin lotion-free.
There was a considerable amount of upfront work needed to get an event of this magnitude off the ground. But for me personally the greatest joy came from the opportunity I had to witness the excitement on students’ faces as they isolated DNA for the very first time or built their own wooden arches and trusses.
As a professional scientist I often find myself losing what many have called the ‘wow factor’ of scientific research. It is easy to become complacent about the marvels of science and to regard each experiment or group discussion as just another stepping stone on a bigger road of scientific achievement. Working with children is unarguably the best remedy for such a malaise. In fact nothing beats seeing a bunch of kids proudly putting tubes of DNA into their backpacks to take home as prized mementos.
Have others out there had similarly enlightening experiences? Let us know!
Rosemary Feasey (2005), Creative Science: Achieving The Wow Factor With 5-11 Year Olds, David Fulton Publishers, London, UK