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Science After School: Raising Our Next Generation of Scientists

May 4, 2017

"How do you explain what air pressure is to an eighth grader?" asks Cheryl Olman. Currently an associate professor of psychology at the University of Minnesota, Olman is working together with science teacher Tim Chase at Murray Middle School in St. Paul on a new science fair mentoring project that connects undergraduates with middle schoolers. The program explores the best ways to teach kids about scientific ideas using hands-on experiments in the lab, examinations of simple materials from everyday life, and, most importantly, uncovering the interest for the unknown that every child is born with.

Every Monday and Wednesday, Dr. Olman meets with her group of undergraduate students in the Murray Middle School's science lab for one hour with 7th and 8th grade students. These middle school students attend the after school science class— dubbed "STEAM Powered Fun" (STEAM stands for science, technology, engineering, art, and math). Half of the students participate in the science fair and the other half of the students come just for fun.

Through the class, students are introduced to a range of topics that inspire their curiosity about how the world works. They investigate subjects like climate science, veterinary science, electricity and magnetism, human behavior, ecology, and chemistry.

When demonstrating air pressure in one class, Chase and Olman set up an experiment with the students using aluminum cans. Students observed steam coming out of the boiling water in the aluminum cans. "What will happen if I dump the bottle upside down into cold water?" Chase asked. "You will need to do this by yourselves and find out what happens." 

Each student was paired up with one of the undergraduates, took a pair of safety glasses, and set up for their own experiment: they lit up a match, boiled the water with Bunsen burners, and then dumped the can upside down into a beaker with cold water. Cans were instantly crushed flat because the air pressure inside became much lower than the outside.

For some students, it was their first time learning how to light up a match. And it was the first time for all of the 12- and 13-year-olds to boil water with a bunsen burner.

After demonstrations like these of basic scientific concepts, students are encouraged to develop their own ideas from what they learned and were most interested in. "My students worked with the middle schoolers to come up with a scientific idea, understand the scientific process, design an experiment, ask questions, do some background research— the basic science process," Dr. Olman said.

"One of the students had a lot of help from her parents and so she used alcohol to extract the DNA from strawberries. She studied how the temperature affects how much DNA you get out of the strawberry. She actually won the science fair in her category," Olman said. Another sixth-grade student was really interested in studying hair. She found that hair products often advertise that they will make people's hair shiny, straight, or curly, so she did her project on the chemistry of hair and how different shampoos change people's hair.

The kids took field trips to the University of Minnesota with their undergraduate teachers and were given a taste of what it is like to be a university student. Dr. Olman's own love for science started very early in her life. "It never occurred to me as a kid to be anything but a physicist," she said. Olman began as a physics major during her undergraduate career and went on to get her PhD in neuroscience, which she called the most "physics-y" life science, a discipline where she saw how physics works in the body. She now works in the psychology department and conducts research on low-level vision and fMRI methods.

The idea of starting a university class that combines science mentoring with service learning sparked a few years ago when Dr. Olman herself volunteered to tutor students at the Murray Middle School. Seeing crowds of kids hanging around outside the school, she decided to get to know them and help her community. "The school has a lot of kids that need a lot of support," Olman said. When developing this class, she set two goals:

  1. Diversity: The class supports students from demographics that are underrepresented in the college science community and provides them with individual help in learning.
  2. Engagement: University students learn to build relationships with middle school students with diverse backgrounds in communities around the university and help create a supportive learning community.

Dr. Olman shares her passion for science with young minds that are eager to learn, which is what her university students felt they learned the most from her. Growing students’ interest for science by doing science together is what Dr. Olman believes is the most successful basis for science education. "Seeing the smiles on the kids' faces when they come to lab is probably the most rewarding moment in this class," Dr. Olman said.

This story was written by an undergraduate student account executive in CLAgency. Meet the team.