From lattes to scented dog shampoo, pumpkins are everywhere this time of year—even starring in science experiments led by Butler University students.
In a take on the classic potato electricity experiment, students of Chemistry Lecturer Paul Morgan brought mini pumpkins to their tabletop station at the annual Celebrate Science Indiana event, October 5 at the Indiana State Fairgrounds. At the event that brings hands-on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics displays under one roof, Butler Chemistry and Biology students led 10 interactive science experiments designed to help children learn about simple scientific reactions and concepts, like how pumpkins can be wired up to make an LED light glow.
“I didn’t know if the pumpkins would work, but lo and behold, they did,” Morgan says. “The wire is one medium to carry the electricity. The pumpkins themselves have different-charged particles inside of them that will allow the current to flow through.”
By volunteering at Celebrate Science Indiana, the Butler students worked toward fulfilling their Indianapolis Community Requirement while gaining experience talking about science in plain language to the hundreds of potential scientists in attendance. The event included science-based companies, nonprofit organizations, and university programs from all over the state.
Morgan’s Chemistry in the Community students were joined by students from the Biology Indianapolis Outreach course, taught by Biological Sciences Senior Lecturer Erin Gerecke.
A steady stream of families checked out the experiments throughout the day. Guests made slime while learning about slugs, tried to pick up golf balls with tongs to simulate how birds eat, and marveled at a tiny motor consisting of an AA battery, copper wire, and magnets.
The experiments will be reprised for several more upcoming events. Morgan’s students will wow future chemists November 2 at The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, while Gerecke’s Biology students will share their knowledge for the general public again November 16 at the Indiana State Museum.
“Just getting the children interested in science is the best thing,” Morgan says. “It’s about pulling them in and having something to talk about, to spur that interest, that curiosity. I even learn a few things from doing this every once and a while.”
Science communication is key
Gerecke says the ability to explain science to different audiences without dumbing it down is a skill students will need as they enter the field.
“This is a very interesting audience because you have children of different ages, and adults,” adds Gerecke while watching her students interact with families at Celebrate Science. “Every person that comes up, you have to start over and figure out how to engage with them.”
Melissa Evans and her classmates chose to promote neuroscience in their display about the four lobes of the brain: That’s the occipital for vision, temporal for speech, frontal for high-level cognition, and parietal for coordination. A plastic model of the human brain fascinated parents and older students while younger children colored pictures of brain halves, attached them to construction paper, and wore them as brainy headbands.
“We’ve had kids who already know the lobes of the brain and kids who don’t even know what a brain is,” says Evans, a Psychology and Critical Communication major with a Neuroscience minor. “We also had a freshman in high school talk to us about our program because she’s interested in coming to Butler.”
Biology senior Kristen Spolyar believes events like Celebrate Science can only give young students a headstart in their STEM classes.
“I never experienced anything like this,” Spolyar said during a short break from running a booth on recycling and sustainability. “I think it’s really cool to have the opportunity for kids to go around, have fun, and experiment with things.”
Sparking scientific interest
Beyond the Butler stations, the entire Celebrate Science event corralled an energetic atmosphere of discovery.
Cody Carley might be a senior studying Biology and Chemistry at Butler, but he felt like a kid again at Celebrate Science.
“Walking around, I’m enthralled by all of this stuff, too,” Carley says. “It’s still exciting for people my age… It’s nice to see what we’re learning does have some applicability and some meaning outside of an academic sense.”
Jenny Luerkins of Indianapolis and her young daughters, Etta and Helen, were among the hundreds who visited the Butler tables, and among the thousands at Celebrate Science 2019. It was their third time attending the event.
“What I really enjoy is that each time we come here, they get to see kids that aren’t much older than them interested in science,” she says. “It’s different than a teacher talking to them or a parent talking to them about science. They’ve got good role models to make science fun in a lot of different ways.”
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