Outreach Programs Encourage Young People to Discover
Children are born scientists—from mastering the physics that is required to roll over to doing the math that ensures that they get the same number of cheese puffs as their siblings to observing a colony of ants or searching for fossils in a creek bed.
Young ones don’t know they are dabbling in the sciences, but their discoveries—often made through play—have all the ingredients of the scientific method: observation, hypotheses, and experimentation.
Somewhere between mud pies and middle school, kids may lose their love of science when it seems to become more work than fun.
But in Behrend’s School of Science, faculty members and students are committed to proving that science can be fun at any age with several new outreach programs for students from kindergarten to college.
These new events (detailed in the sidebar at right) are in addition to the school’s already-popular public outreach programs that include Astronomy Open Houses, Science Olympiad, Science Café presentations, and weekly Yahn Planetarium shows.
The school sees outreach as an investment in the future. “Science is the best way to teach kids how to think critically,” said Tracy Halmi, science outreach coordinator and associate teaching professor of chemistry. “Young people form opinions early. If we can get them excited about problem solving and science, it can inspire a lifetime of curiosity and learning so that they form educated opinions based on facts.”
School of Science outreach efforts are faculty-initiated and faculty-driven. “It’s a lot of work, but the smiles and bear hugs from kids make it all worth it,” Halmi said. “With many children, you can tell immediately you’re making a difference. Their faces just light up”.
Behrend students are involved and benefit from the programs, too. Not only do they get to share their passion for science with the next generation, they can practice their communication skills.
“It’s important that our students be able to communicate science to non-scientists,” Halmi said. “It’s a skill they will need in the real world, and they get experience doing it at these events.”
Dr. Beth Potter, associate professor of biology, has developed many new events, the COVID pandemic inspiring her to connect with the community.
“As scientists, we need to do a better job of communicating with the public so that they understand advances and new technologies when they are introduced,” Potter said. “We need to encourage everyone to think critically, like a scientist.”
Potter said events also encourage community involvement, which is important for students who may be planning to go to graduate school in the health care fields.
To that end, Potter created a 1.5-credit Science Service Learning Class—BIO 297—in the fall of 2022. Students enrolled in the class help plan and execute outreach events and other service projects.
“It really allows Behrend students to step into leadership roles and help mold the next generation of scientists by sharing their enthusiasm for it,” she said.
New Outreach Events
A Prehistoric Egg Hunt was aimed at elementary-school-age children, putting a scientific spin on the traditional Easter egg hunt. At the event, kids “excavated” eggs, looked for fossils in a “dig site,” and enjoyed dino-themed decorations, snacks, and games. They even had the opportunity to meet and talk to a real paleontologist—the school’s own Dr. Todd Cook, associate professor of biology.
Boo-ology: The Haunting of Behrend’s Science Labs was a Halloween-themed event geared toward middle-school students. The premise: “There was once a mad professor who studied all things creepy and scary at Behrend. One Halloween night years ago, he went missing—never to return. For the first time, his abandoned, haunted lab will be opened to the public.” Attendees visited the mad professor’s pumpkin patch and extracted some DNA, used science to add ghosts to a graveyard, learned how to shake hands with an alien, and more.
For the Love of Darwin invited high school biology students to participate in hands-on workshops exploring Darwin’s theories of evolution and natural selection. Students examined the effects of mutations and selection by predation, and they got to try out the school’s new virtual dissection tables.
The Cardboard Boat Race challenged high-school and college students to construct boats using only cardboard and duct tape, then race them across the Junker Center pool against other teams. Vessels could not be motorized in any way, pushed or pulled by a swimmer, or sealed with any paints, adhesives, glues, or sealants. Fifteen teams participated in the event, which was spearheaded by Maarten Van Hees, lecturer in physics. The winning team used a surfboard design.