Montana State University

Hundreds of Montana kids see playful side of science during Science Saturdays

April 21, 2010 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service


Josh DeWeese, assistant professor in the College of Arts and Architecture, works with a student during the March 2010 Science Saturday, titled "How do you stretch a rock?" (Photo courtesy of Extended University).   High-Res Available

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BOZEMAN -- Children and parents hummed through wax paper-covered combs while jazz singer Jeni Fleming sang the "Science Saturday" version of "Hound Dog," everyone rocking out to their newly learned blues chord progression.

Jamming with her were Jake Fleming on the electric guitar, Chet Leach on an African drum and Ilse-Mari Lee on an electric cello. On a big screen behind them, Elvis Presley sang the original words to "You ain't nothin' but a hound dog" while teenagers screamed. As Fleming finished her version of the song, the Montana State University lecture hall in Roberts Hall was alive with rhythm, music, clapping and general happiness all around.

And so -- with tingling lips and a room full of smiles -- the second season of Science Saturdays came to a close.

Over 900 children from Bozeman, communities as far away as Helena, Stevensville and Glasgow; and the Crow Indian Reservation have participated in Science Saturdays since MSU started offering the program in the fall of 2008, said Suzi Taylor, outreach director for MSU's Extended University.

Designed to show kids from age 8 to 13 that science is fun and questions are good, the free monthly program was held six times this school year and five times last year on the MSU campus. It also traveled this year to the Crow Indian Reservation. MSU researchers and students traveled to the reservation, and youth came from the reservation (with funding by the Hughes Undergraduate Biology Program) to attend Science Saturdays at MSU. Organizers say Science Saturdays will continue in the fall, and related efforts are under way in South Africa.

"The unique aspect of Science Saturdays is that it provides a way for faculty to share their interest in science and their research with children in the community," said Jennifer Douglas, outreach programs coordinator for MSU's Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. "Most children have never met a research scientist before."

Presented by MSU faculty with help from community musicians for the last session and assistance from MSU staff and students, each two-hour session of Science Saturday had a different theme. Children at one session learned how insects communicate by watching a male silk worm moth make its way through a wind tunnel toward a female. With undaunted purpose, the male continued his journey even after the female was replaced with a cotton ball containing her scent. In other sessions, the children learned about pockets of native clay in Montana. They found out what baby diapers and cleaning up oil spills have in common, and why it's hard to pull a gecko off a wall. They studied spider webs to learn how to make stronger string. They made motors, clay pots and slimy goop.

"We want to show children that science is everywhere. MSU faculty from art, engineering, agriculture and the sciences have outdone themselves in designing really fun events that keep children coming back for more each month. We have consistently had a waiting list because of the popularity of these events," said Trevor Douglas, a professor in chemistry and biochemistry and director of MSU's Center for Bio-Inspired Nanomaterials.

In the process of having fun -- without showing any signs of intimidation -- the children were introduced to genetics, viruses, nanomaterials and other subjects that challenge many adults.

"It's fabulous, incredible what they are putting together," Maryshaun Mize of Bozeman said as she accompanied her daughter, Katie, to her first Science Saturday, the season finale that featured the science of music.

"I like science and music," said Katie, 8, a student at Emily Dickinson School. "This is kind of like all of it at the same time."

Gabe Ballotta of Bozeman, 12, said, "It's a lot of fun, a good learning experience, a lot of cool people."

Gabe looked pretty cool himself in sunglasses and a brown fedora. His mom, Rebecca Ballotta said Gabe is homeschooled and a serious musician who started playing violin when he was three. He is now the youngest violinist in the MSU Symphony.

Gabe and Katie were among 73 children who participated in the final Science Saturday of the season. In one workshop, they giggled as Leach got up from his drum and used his body to demonstrate rhythm and tone. At one point, Leach told the children to beat the drums in front of their chairs while imagining they were sitting around a campfire with buffalo bones. After hearing them play and finding out that Ashleigh, Andrew and Christopher Snider were siblings, Leach shouted, "Give it up for the Snider Rib Bone Trio."

In another room, Rob Maher, head of MSU's Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, explored the physics of sound by showing sound waves dance across a big screen. He told the kids to yell "Ahhhh," and measured their volume at 95 decibels. He explained how to pour different levels of water into glass bottles so the children had enough notes to play "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star." The children then blew across the top of the bottles and watched the sound waves appear on oscilloscope screens.

In a workshop with the Flemings, (both MSU graduates and wearing lab coats to emphasize the relationship between music and science) the children helped compose a song and collaborated on the lyrics. Jeni Fleming sang the outcome, mostly with a straight face, while her husband accompanied her. One group came up with, "I had breakfast for lunch and lunch for dinner. It was so bad I threw up."

Science should be fun and is fun, Douglas said. An expert in viruses and extremely tiny protein cages, Douglas said he has always believed in the importance of play and a questioning mind. To develop those in children, Douglas came up with the idea for Science Saturdays. Besides making it fun, he wanted the program to be available to children of all abilities.

"When you look at what's available fo kids in Bozeman, if you are good at sports, there are fantastic opportunities," Douglas said. "If you are good at music, there's a fantastic orchestra and fantastic programs. We want to offer more opportunities for kids that are interested in science and encourage all kids to come learn how to ask questions, play with science and learn about the exciting science that is happening at MSU directly from the person doing the work. We have incredible researchers in this town, and this is a way for them to connect with the next generation of learners."

Douglas said he was hardly alone in turning the idea for Science Saturdays into reality. Among the many people who organized the events were Taylor and Susan Byorth at Extended University, Martha Peters in the NSF EPSCoR office, and Douglas' wife, Jennifer, in chemistry/biochemistry. MSU students, staff and faculty assisted the presenters and helped children participate in activities. Faculty from four MSU colleges found creative ways to share their expertise with children much younger than the students they normally teach.

"Science has everything to say about music and so often, great musicians are wonderful scientists and scientists are musicians," Ilse-Mari Lee told the children who attended the science-music session.

A music professor, concert cellist, composer and director of MSU's Honors Program, Lee not only played with the Flemings, but she showed a video about a golden record sent into space aboard the Voyager spacecraft in 1977. The record plays all sorts of music and says "hello" in many different languages to communicate with life that may exist elsewhere in the galaxy.

Ross Snider, associate professor in electrical and computer engineering and father of the Snider Rib Bone Trio, said when he learned that Douglas was starting Science Saturdays, he decided to present a session on motors and robotics.

"We don't want all these students to be chemists," Snider said with a smile. "There have to be a few engineers in the mix. ... Engineers make science useful."

Douglas, postdoctoral researcher Chris Broomell and two undergraduate students who volunteered at Science Saturdays took that same enthusiasm to Douglas' native South Africa in December. The students were Kevin Harlen of Helena and Courtney Reichhardt of Butte, both Howard Hughes Medical Institute Scholars at MSU

"It's so fun to work with the kids," Harlen said. "It's fun to get to teach the science that we do."

Douglas said the MSU group went to African schools that were fairly established and presented their ideas to students and teachers from there and outlying areas. One middle-school teacher who came told Douglas that his school had 1,500 students who rotate through a single building -- a metal shipping container.

"Imagine 1,500 kids and the only infrastructure is a container," Douglas said.

Douglas and two other MSU students will head to South Africa in May to expand the work they began in December. Those students -- also HHMI Scholars -- will be Katie Lenahan from Media, Penn., and Emily Buckhouse of Kalispell. They will focus on four themes that are particularly relevant in South Africa: viruses, water, energy and bio-materials, such as bones, shells, spider silk and geckoes.

"Those are all incredible materials we would love to make, but we don't know exactly how," Douglas said. "Every kid knows geckoes in this area of South Africa."

Lenahan said she enjoyed her experience with Science Saturdays and believe it led to her acceptance into the "Teach for America" program. After returning from South Africa, she will teach for two years in low income schools in the San Francisco Bay area.

Despite the disparities between the United States and South Africa, Douglas said it's fascinating to see that the playful approach that works in Bozeman and the Crow Indian Reservation also works in South Africa.

"These kids are every bit as capable, motivated, excited and engaged as the kids here," Douglas said.

For more information, photos and downloadable Science Saturday activities, visit http://eu.montana.edu/SciSat/