DPU students help teach GMS pupils in Youth Science Club

Wednesday, January 18, 2012
DePauw senior Sarah M. Kortebein poses with an unbroken egg.

Under normal circumstances, the scene that unfolded in the DePauw University Julian Science and Mathematics Center recently would have been an unmitigated disaster.

A large group of middle school students had taken the high ground on a third-floor balcony, and one by one, they were dropping eggs to the ground below.

But these were not normal circumstances. It was science -- Science Club, to be exact -- and a few broken eggs weren't going to get in the way of it. Most of the atrium floor isn't carpeted, anyway.

Once a month, the group of about 30 students from Greencastle Middle School comes to DePauw in pursuit of science.

This time, members of DePauw's Science Research Fellows (SRF) program had prepared what is known in introductory physics parlance as an egg drop. Offering coffee filters, plastic grocery bags, balloons, cotton balls, bubble wrap, newspapers and tape, they tasked the GMS visitors with protecting an egg during an otherwise disastrous fall.

Some middle schoolers created makeshift parachutes, while others wrapped their eggs to cushion them during impact. One simple, but clever model had balloons on either side of the egg to prevent it from ever touching the floor.

Then came the drop. Although the program was created for children, you didn't have to be a kid to enjoy watching them test their hypotheses.

"We don't play football, so this is what we do," said David L. Roberts, a part-time assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry who created and coordinates Science Club. "This is our stadium."

Besides dropping eggs with SRF, Science Club members have cloned E. coli bacteria and made it glow in the dark with Assistant Professor of Biology Pascal J. E. LaFontant, and learned about the elements with Theodore Gray, co-founder of Wolfram Research Inc. and creator of The Elements, a popular visual periodic table.

"We're not doing 'kitchen chemistry' experiments," Roberts says. "We do a lot of college-type of labs that are simplified versions of what our own students take. It can be an intense experience, but we have close supervision so they can't hurt themselves."

DePauw's science outreach efforts span most of the K-12 spectrum. Roberts himself teaches a high school chemistry class on campus, and this January he's running a Science Bowl for elementary school students. Science Club hits a sweet spot in the middle. The middle schoolers are old enough to appreciate the science behind what they're doing, and young enough to still be wowed by it, making it easy for Roberts to recruit help each month.

"I do it because it is a lot of fun," DPU senior Courtney E. Brimmer says.

A student in Roberts' Teaching of Chemistry class, Brimmer is also a science education assistant at a local elementary school. "It's an opportunity to teach kids about something that I enjoy in a creative way. And all the kids are excited to learn new things."

Like Brimmer, students in Roberts' class take part in other outreach programs in addition to Science Club.

By prioritizing community involvement and a commitment to increasing science literacy, Roberts hopes he's not only training better people, but also better scientists.

"Teaching really is the best way to learn," Roberts says. "I don't think you really know you've learned something until you try to teach somebody else what it means."

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