by Derek Simon
Hope for the Future: Inspiring Young Minds
Some disturbing statistics: 46% of Americans deny that evolution is scientific truth (Gallup, 2012) and 29% still refuse to acknowledge that global warming is occurring (Gallup, 2014), despite the overwhelming consensus amongst the professional scientific community confirming the validity of these topics. Despite these trends, the United States remains the economic power of the world and the leader in innovations, discoveries, and scientific research, but how can we maintain this position when we allow some of our citizens to succumb to such unfortunate ignorance? Perhaps scientists themselves are partly to blame? After all, what good is knowledge and discovery unless it can be properly communicated and appreciated by the average American?
On Saturday May 3, at the Rockefeller University (RU) on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, a group of over 60 scientists and 40 other volunteers transformed the prestigious research institute into a smorgasbord of scientific delight and a font of inspiration for young minds! With over 25 activity booths, the inaugural Science Saturday, brain-child of RU’s Science Outreach Director Dr. Jeanne Garbarino, was an ambitious and exciting approach to tackling public ignorance towards scientific discovery: preventing it from ever existing.
Science Saturday Rocks!
The Collaborative Research Center (CRC), one of the newest additions to RU is a multi-level atrium with a central staircase, linking some of the oldest buildings on campus and creating a space to foster interactions and collaborations between RU scientists. Fittingly, the CRC became a site of a different sort of collaboration, that of professional scientists and children ages ranging from 6-18.
Guests began arriving at 10:00am and were guided along RU’s marble outer walkways flanked with festive balloons. The first event of the day was a lecture presented by Dr. Daniel Kronauer, head of the Laboratory of Insect Social Evolution, on something any child who spent a summer’s day playing in the park would enjoy: Ants! After the talk, the sky was the limit (which was the literally the case for an unfortunate inflatable shark that got away early in the day).
Guests had free choice to explore any of the more than 25 activity stations dotted up and down the CRC. One to three tie-dye wearing volunteers, eager to explain a scientific principle through games and hands-on activities, operated each booth accompanied by a poster containing detailed information about the activity. The flow of people began as a trickle but quickly became a deluge of eager youngsters dragging their parents or grandparents to the different stations. Over 750 people attended, 400 of which were kids, including 50 walk-ins who happened to be drawn in by the all the commotion.
Heading down to the ground level of the CRC, kids could make their own rocket at the “NYC Makery” and then launch their creation up into the floors above, being careful to avoid the fluttering, motorized “Angry Birds” that other guests were piloting nearby. But first they could tie-dye their own shirt in a disco music playing, psychedelic lights flashing, 1970’s room or take a 3D-trip into a brain at the “Neurodome” exhibit. A floor above, ice was funneled into a peculiar geodesic dome-like plastic ball, along with cream and sugar, and after about 15-20 minutes of rolling later… delicious homemade ice cream! Another floor up, one of the largest booths had several different kinds of electrical engineering experiments set up, including a water-powered generator, a build-your-own-circuit kit, and games involving capacitors and LED lights in series and in parallel.
Neuroscience, the brain, and the senses occupied a special prominence (and an entire floor of the CRC). Dr. Leslie Vosshall, head of the Laboratory of Neurogenetics and Behavior, invited guests to put their noses to the test and explore the different odors that are the basis of a variety of flavors. Dr. James Hudspeth, head of the Laboratory of Sensory Neuroscience, demonstrated crawfish nerve stimulation and measurements in addition to the classic frog muscle twitch. Dr. Thomas Sakmar, head of the Laboratory of Chemical Biology and Signal Transduction, dissected a cow’s eye while his wife and two daughters ran other vision-related activities. Other booths compared brains from different animals, stimulated a cockroach’s leg to twitch, challenged kids to guess an unknown number of brain candies, and even allowed them to make their own edible neuron out of candy. The “Project Brainflight” booth was a very cool virtual experiment in which kids traced neurons in a video game-like format that is based on actual brain images. Meaning that the kids were helping to analyze real data!
However, other areas of the life sciences were not to be outshined by the brain. The “Mosquito Mania” booth allowed guests to witness a live mosquito feeding from a scientific perspective, while also learning about the little pests. Kids could expand on their ant knowledge at the “The Secret Lives of Ants” booth or make their own algae-like substance at the “Power of Plants” booth.
And of course, what would a science carnival be without some liquid nitrogen, space exploration, and safety demonstrations? In the “Deep Freeze” booth guests created spinning ping pong balls by filling them with the super cold liquid nitrogen (too fun not to play with) and smashed flowers after freezing them. The good folks at RU’s Laboratory Safety department showed off their stylish goggles and lab coats while performing staple science demos such as combining baking soda and vinegar to fill up a balloon and watching as a white carnation absorbed black ink. Guests could also register for an interstellar voyage to one of the planets in the solar system or pose for a picture on Mars at the “Intergalactic Travel Bureau” hosted by some very futuristically stylish volunteers.
Outside vendors and organizations also were eager to participate. Genspace, the Brooklyn based “Bio-hacking” space directed by Dr. Ellen Jorgensen, merged science and art with a paint-with-bacteria activity (see photo below). The innovators at MiniPCR demonstrated all the steps of necessary for running a PCR, enzymatic digestion, and for running out a product on gel.
To participate in this plethora of diverse activities, individual guests paid $25 (or $75 for a family of 5) with a number of tickets that were made available to students and teachers from underserved schools. Guests came from all over New York City and Tri-State area. The RU Science Outreach department and Parents & Science Initiative helped advertise and coordinate the ultimate fruition of the day.
Future Scientists to the Rescue
Scientists have been applying their skills to overcome seemingly insurmountable problems since the dawn of scientific thinking. At Science Saturday, they applied these skills to inspire young minds. I overheard one mother comment, “I’ve been to a lot of events like these [with my kids] but this one is probably the best. There’s almost too much to do. It’s so impressive that you guys put this kind of effort into this.” I think everyone who participated—scientists, volunteers, parents, and especially the kids—could unanimously agree that the day was a huge success. We look forward to the second annual Science Saturday!
For me personally, the joy these youngsters showed towards learning science was a source of inspiration and nostalgia about my own childhood sense of wonder towards science. America may be a in a tough spot right now in regard to its relationship to science but if these Science Saturday kids will be the ones running things some day, I think the future of science in the United States is a hopeful one.