Campus & Community

Experiments in learning

3 min read

Researchers give grade-schoolers a glimpse of scientific methods

During a recent visit to James W. Hennigan Elementary School in Jamaica Plain for a science fair, Carlos Brambila recalled the lasting impact a similar fair had on him. When he was in grade school in California, a scientist from a local university came to his school to show the students how smoking affects the body.

“It was an eye-opener,” Brambila said. “After that experience, I was always asking why things happen and how they work. I realized how science could really be applied in the real world.”

Now a senior bioengineering major at San Diego State University (SDSU), Brambila is conducting research in the lab of David Weitz, Mallinckrodt Professor of Physics and Applied Physics at Harvard University, over the summer. He jumped at the chance to participate in science demonstrations at the Hennigan.

“I remember how strongly that can impact someone’s life, because it did for me. That’s when I started to question why things are the way they are, and why things happen. If it weren’t for those early experiences, I don’t know if I would think the way I do now.”

The three days of science demonstrations and experiments, reaching more than 400 students in grades three through five, were coordinated through the Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS). The REU program used the science fair at the Hennigan as an opportunity for undergrads working in Harvard labs to experience a day in the Boston Public Schools and, in the process, to provide a unique learning opportunity for local kids.

Each day, classrooms of elementary-school students toured six experiment stations, with each experiment led by one or two college students doing research at Harvard this summer.

The event was a hit with the kids, said Caitrin O’Rourke, a third-grade teacher.

“It helps them apply the concepts they learn in class to real life,” she said. “It also helps them look to the future and see the possibilities in science and math. The kids really connect with the college students. This is a great way for them to interact with each other and with their community.”

Kathryn Hollar, the director of educational programs at SEAS, is familiar with the Hennigan School. In 2012-13 she worked with the science specialist, Vikki Ivin-Kent, to support the study of engineering among fifth-graders.

“The partnership with Harvard provides an additional opportunity for students to learn,” Ivin-Kent said. “I heard the college students ask, ‘What do you think will happen …,’ and building scientific reasoning is a main objective of our work in the classroom.”

Some students observed how a hydrophobic coating kept “magic sand” from absorbing water. Others learned about ferrofluid, a common technique used against counterfeit money. Still others made their very own gummy bears by combing sodium alginate and calcium chloride. Regardless of the experiment, the message was clear — science is fun.

Hollar, who led the initiative, said, “I think the kids are really enjoying [the program] and benefitting from it. The college students are so much closer in age to these kids, and both the undergraduates and the kids really respond to that. You can see it in their faces — they’re so engaged.”

Brambila agreed. “You can see the excitement in the kids’ faces, every time. If you love science and research on the college level, there’s nothing better than sharing that with new, creative minds, and inspiring them to learn. It could really light a spark, like it did for me, and lead them to a career in the sciences.”