As I alluded to in the post from last time, we really need to make a concerted effort to improve science literacy. There has been a huge push in the past few years to promote Scientific Outreach programs. The first step, and perhaps the way I should have begun this blog, is to remind ourselves and to educate others about the scientific method. This past weekend I began volunteering for an outreach program in NYC’s Lower East Side Girl’s Club called BioBus. This program looks to bring science to schools around the NJ/NY area and to open up its “BioBase” as an after school program. The main goal is to teach children to follow a scientific way of thinking. This can all sound very vague; it may seem that we’re just throwing around the word science a bunch of times. We have, however, a very specific way to define what we do in “science”.
All scientific efforts involve three basic parts: making an observation, forming a hypothesis, and testing that hypothesis. The group that I worked with this weekend at BioBase made sure to emphasize each component of this particular class: Fall Discoveries. Students were tasked with making an observation about the fall landscape: what color are the leaves in fall? The kids noted that, as we know, there are many different colored leaves in fall. The teachers challenged them to think about why. Why do trees have different leaves in the fall? Do they make new leaves? Do the leaves lose color? Where does the color go? They then formed a hypothesis: that the green leaves we find in the spring and summer also had red, yellow, and brown colors and that they lose it in the fall. The kids and teachers in the class worked together to collect leaves, mix them up with isopropanol, and to run a simple chromatography experiment on coffee filter paper. These kids were thrilled to find that they could see the differences in leaf colors right there in the filter paper! Underlying this cute little experiment were the fundamentals of the scientific method: observation, hypothesis, and testing.
Sometimes experiments are conducted for more reasons than just to answer a question. Okay, yes, the kids at Biobase this weekend learned about how leaves change colors. More than that though, they learned how to be a scientist. The cynics amongst us might wonder if these experiments really have a payout. Would a kid who went to an afterschool program when they were 8 years old really be more inclined to become a scientist? Well, I can remember back to the Science Summer Camps that my parents sent me to and all of the in-school projects that my grandparents came to do at my elementary school. It certainly pushed me towards a career in science. There is a short term payoff as well. After the program I saw some of the students talking to their parents about what they learned that week. Their parents started asking the volunteers questions about the program that week. Science outreach programs do more than just train students, the get families talking about science and about education. And you know what the parents in these families will do? They will go out and vote!!! They’ll vote pro-education officials into office! That is your immediate payout for Scientific Outreach programs; it’s also a grass-roots movement to improve funding for the sciences and education.
I had a lot of fun this weekend and I hope to keep volunteering with this group because these types of experiments are just as important as anything I can do in lab. I hope you will be inspired to volunteer with a similar program as well. You don’t have to be PhD student either; just someone with an inquisitive mind and a passion for teaching. I’ve included the link below to Biobus, if anybody reading this knows of other outreach programs in their area please post it in the comments section. Thanks for reading!