Campus & Community

Science sleuths

3 min read

At ExperiMentors, kids learn real science while having fun

Michael Di Capua and
“French chef” Michel Di Capua ’02 is taken aback by a rush for his autograph from the elementary school audience at the Science Center last Friday.

Staff photos by Jon Chase

There was a kidnapping in Science Center B on Friday, May 11. But thanks to the speedy forensic work of some elementary school students, the crime was solved by day’s end.

A ransom note to investigate.
Frances Zhu, 8, a student at the Peabody School, seems a bit wary while wired up for a polygraph test.

The kidnapper, the victim, the suspects, and the young sleuths were participants in Science Day, the year-end celebration of the ExperiMentors program. Through ExperiMentors, Harvard undergraduate volunteers commute each week to eight Cambridge elementary schools to teach science.

After Cambridge Police Department’s Shawn Dolan demonstrated fingerprinting techniques, several Harvard students presented skits that mixed science with silliness. “Professor” Boris Morse told a secret in Morse code, French “chef” Jean-Luc Doughnut passed powdered doughnuts around, and news reporter Bawbwa Wawa tried to get a scoop. As “Professor” Goodheart was explaining genetic code, a masked intruder kidnapped her, inciting gleeful shrieking from the 200 students.

The young scientists spent the remainder of Science Day tracking the kidnapper with – what else? – science. They compared fingerprints, analyzed the ransom note, and identified a mystery powder collected as evidence. Lie detector and microscope demonstrations added a lively dose of “gee whiz” to the day.

“We wanted to tie in all the science they’ve been learning and make this day focused,” said Sadhna Vora ’02, this year’s ExperiMentors director, who worked with several other students to produce the crime-themed Science Day. “I think there are ways to make science lots of fun and exciting. That’s the goal of this program,” she said.

By all accounts, the ExperiMentors are meeting their goal. The volunteers “bring something special to whatever we’re teaching, something that really sparks the kids,” said Debbie Pierce, a third-grade teacher at the Peabody School.

For the Harvard students, there’s more to the program than a refreshing break from academics. “The more I teach science, the better grasp of it I get,” said ExperiMentor Michael DiCapua ’02, who portrayed kidnapping suspect Chef Doughnut. Anne Beaudreau ’01, who has volunteered with ExperiMentors for four years, concurs. “Teaching helps you articulate better and gives you confidence speaking in front of people.”

By the end of Science Day, the students nailed Professor Boris Morse as the kidnapper, and the victim, Professor Goodheart, was safely returned. Their work done, the elementary school students left with ExperiMentors Detective Training Academy diplomas, autographs of the “suspects,” and a revved-up appetite for science.

Corey Brammer, Tommy Spurlock and Heather
Corey Brammer (left), 10, and Tommy Spurlock, 9, from the Peabody School in Cambridge, watch Heather Morris ’02 conduct a chromatography test analyzing a “ransom note” written with black Magic Marker.