Rat brain cells, healing wounds, batteries made from nails and vinegar, and Silly Putty—nearly 1,000 seventh and eighth graders milling through Princeton University's Science and Engineering Expo (SEE Princeton) are getting a good look at a lot of science, hands-on and close-up.
Ryan Urbshot, Jamaal Brown, and Zach Tickal's first stop is the Carl Icahn Laboratory, where scientists are demonstrating experiments in molecular biology, neuroscience, genomics, ecology, and evolutionary biology. After watching a video of cells repairing a wound, the boys from Burlington City Junior High School in Burlington, New Jersey, take turns peering through a microscope at different cell types. “What is that cord thing?" one of them asks as graduate student Courtney Williams slips a dish of rat brain cells, with rounded cell bodies and long, stringy axons, under the microscope. “We knew some of this before, but it gets us more interested in science to see it," Tickal remarks.
The excitement that hands-on activities generate is exactly what Ann Sliski, outreach coordinator for Princeton's molecular biology department, had in mind when she came up with the idea for the Expo, which has exposed nearly 2,000 young people to hands-on science and engineering since it was established in 2004. Nearly all Princeton University science and engineering departments work together in the campus-wide effort to demonstrate cutting-edge research and technology.
The Science and Engineering Expo at Princeton University reaches these students at a critical time in their education, when many students lose interest in science and no longer consider careers in science and engineering. “Elementary and high-school students often get to participate in special science-education programs, but middle-school students don't, and “it's really key to grab them at this age or else lose them later on," says Sliski. “Many of these students come from schools that don't have a lot of resources, so this is an opportunity for them to meet scientists and see what goes on at the university," she adds.
SEE Princeton was established by a science education grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) and continues with support from HHMI, the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, and departments at Princeton.
In addition to life-sciences experiments, the students attend demonstrations in astrophysics, physics, chemistry, computer science, and engineering. Many of them draw small groups of students into interactions with scientists. In the Friend Center for Engineering Education, Princeton researchers are demonstrating how simple electromagnetic motors work and how to build a small battery by putting zinc and copper nails in vinegar.
Faculty, graduate students, and postdoctoral fellows across the sciences vie for the chance to participate. Scientists from companies such as Micron Optics, which builds Nikon microscope systems, and community organizations such as the Stony Brook Millstone Watershed Association join them. Two scientists from the FMC Corporation, an international chemical firm with a research and technology center in Princeton, brought their personal collections of several thousand types of insects to show the middle-schoolers.
Kathryn Wagner, a lecturer in Princeton's chemistry department, wants to demonstrate that observation is the basic tool of chemistry. She holds up a flask of colorless liquid. “What do you think this is?" she asks. “Water," they agree. Wagner holds up another small flask of a similarly colorless liquid. “And what is this?" Again they answer “water." Without comment, she adds the second liquid to the first. Then she holds up yet another flask of colorless liquid. Now doubt is setting in. The students collectively hesitate to call it water.
Wagner adds the contents of the third flask to the first two, and the three colorless solutions rapidly turn black, then yellow, then bluish-purple, then yellow again. Oohs and ahs fill the room as the students watch the liquid change from yellow to bluish- purple and back to yellow. It finally settles into a dark blue color, completing the Briggs-Rauscher oscillating reaction, which uses solutions of hydrogen peroxide, potassium iodate, sulfuric acid, malonic acid, and manganese sulfate monohydrate to demonstrate that two chemical reactions can switch back and forth when the product of one is the reactant for the other.
With their skills of observation heightened, the students deploy to the chemistry lab, where they mix glue, which is a polymer, with Borax, to make a larger polymer, commercially known as Silly Putty for its stretchy, bouncy properties.
After they SEE Princeton, Chelsea Brill and Trish Reilly from Community Middle School in West Windsor-Plainsboro say that they're looking forward to taking more science in school now. “This makes science more fun," they explain.