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Science night fosters grade-schoolers’ natural curiosity

April 27, 2012 By David Tenenbaum

A delighted murmur – a hybrid of “Wow!” and “Whoa!” — arises as an ultraviolet light illuminates the invisible traces of chemicals on a chromatography paper, and Dave Stevenson knows he’s done his job at Family Science Night at Emerson Elementary School on Madison’s east side.

Dave Stevenson leads a class in chromatography

Dave Stevenson, a microbiologist at the federal Dairy Forage Research Center on the UW–Madison campus, leads a class in chromatography, a technique for separating chemicals, on Apr. 24, 2012, at Emerson School in Madison. The white cylinders hold dots from markers that are separating into component pigments. Photo: Scott Maurer.

After a slow-food chili dinner hosted by members of the Kiwanis Club and the Emerson Parent Teacher Organization on April 24, more than 250 parents and students have dispersed to classrooms to begin simple experiments in physics, engineering, chemistry, alternative energy and other fields.

Stevenson, a microbiologist at the federal Dairy Forage Research Center on the University of Wisconsin–Madison campus, gives an outline of chromatography for 22 students in first through fifth grades.

“Chemists make things all the time by mixing chemicals, but here, we’re taking chemicals apart,” Stevenson says. “We’d never know anything about medicine if we could not take chemicals apart.”

But even with the “Wows!” of success, chromatography must compete with an irresistible attraction in the hallway: insects called walking sticks that are more than happy to crawl – in robot-like slow motion — up the kids’ arms.

Many of the students at this Family Science Night also attend after-school science clubs, another outreach program that is a brainchild of Dolly Ledin of the Institute for Biology Education at UW–Madison. 

Kids, Ledin says, are natural scientists.

“Many people think of science as a collection of facts, information, but when you look at what scientists do, the most important thing is the process, the curiosity, the way they ask questions and go about developing fair ways to find answers based on evidence,” Ledin says. “That’s a process that kids are uniquely attuned to. They are naturally curious, and they test out things in the environment every day.”

The after-school science clubs run for eight weeks at a time, and are led by people like Megan Olsen, a sophomore who’s taking Ledin’s service learning class and just declared a double major in math and biology.

As Olsen helps dole out walking sticks, she observes, “It’s a great experience to share science. Look how excited they are!”

Cathy Perry, a veteran teacher at Emerson, says Family Science Night also confers a social benefit.

“This is building the community, with the variety of families coming together with an academic goal,” she says. “For the kids, it opens their eyes to the world, they see what is out there.”

Children, like the rest of us, are immersed in science, and just need the opportunity to explore it, Ledin says.

“Food: where does it come from, and how we know what’s in it?” Ledin asks. “We can set up a simple experiment to test the pH of drinks. And the environment in the schoolyard: where does the water go when it rains? How does it eventually get into a lake and what might make it less clean as flows into the lake? These are simple things in everyday life that they can investigate. We don’t want them to just believe what they are told, but to test it, to gather evidence with a scientific experiment.”

Buttonholed in the hallway next to the walking sticks, second grader Jack Maurer endorses both the club and the science night.

“I really like science; it’s a fun experience; I’m learning lots of things,” he says. “And I like the bugs.”