If you’ve ever made ice cream from scratch, you know that the process typically involves a lot of waiting. That was not the case this past Saturday, April 27 in the Exley Science Center and the Hall-Atwater Laboratory. Wesleyan students enrolled in the Science Pedagogy for Elementary School Students (SPESS) class orchestrated Science Saturday, a biannual event in which elementary school students from the area come to Wesleyan’s campus for a day of zany fun, passion for science, and ice cream created by blending typical ingredients with liquid nitrogen.
Science Saturday happens each semester as a capstone event for SPESS and Wesleyan Science Outreach (WSO), the club SPESS leads that sends volunteers each week to five area schools—Spencer, Snow, MacDonough, Farm Hill, and Bielefield—to carry out after-school lesson plans that SPESS students have developed. All members of the class participate in the club, so when it comes time for SPESS to take the reins on Science Saturday, they’re prepared for the hectic day that ensues.
Michelle Woodcock ’14 and Emily Berman ’13 serve as teaching assistants within SPESS and as co-directors of WSO. Although Associate Professor of Chemistry David Westmoreland and Visiting Assistant Professor of Chemistry Andrea Roberts technically teach SPESS, they mostly serve in an advisory capacity and let Woodcock, Berman, and the other students guide the shape of the classes.
“It’s a lot of pressure, but also fun, because we can choose to focus the course on whatever we want,” Berman said. “Professor Westmoreland and Professor Roberts are usually enthusiastic about anything we want to try.”
The weekly lesson plans are organized by unit; the last unit focused on health, with individual lessons based on germs, dental health, and the circulatory system. Past units have included nutrition, evolution, motion, and DNA.
SPESS students invite the kids and their parents to Wesleyan’s campus for Science Saturday for a set of demonstrations that covers a wider range of scientific fields. According to Mike Nakhla ’13, this means more of an emphasis on spectacle.
“For Science Saturday, we try to do bigger experiments and demos,” Nakhla said. “Things that we can’t really bring to the kids, we try to do here because we have access to the labs in Hall-Atwater and Shanklin.”
The day’s activities certainly made use of these resources. One demo, organized by Berman, Samantha Sikder ’14, and Eliza Forman ’13, was organized around the principles of meteorology. The group used DIY barometers made of plastic cups and saran wrap to demonstrate changes in air pressure within a dessicator. They also made thermometers out of water bottles filled with rubbing alcohol and water and mimicked lightning with a Van de Graaff generator.
“We really wanted the students we were working with to understand that the tools that [we] use to predict the weather can be used by everyone,” Berman said.
Another one of the demonstrations dealt with systems of pressure. Woodcock, Lauren Seo ’14, and Kelly How ’14 designed a three-stage pressure obstacle course that showed students the marvels that can result from different distributions of pressure. First, they had to walk across paths made out of whole cartons of eggs without breaking any. Because of the equal distribution of weight across the eggs, this goal was nearly accomplished.
“We only broke 5 eggs out of 25 dozen,” How said. “It was incredible.”
Next, the children had to race balloon-powered cars that they had built before the start of the race. (They were allowed to take their balloon-powered cars home when the day was over.)Finally, they had to fill and activate a balloon-powered pressure fountain that poured water out of a straw.
A third activity, facilitated by Nakhla, Henry Cheung ’14, and Jennifer Brewer ’13, let kids fill the shoes of forensic scientists by using scientific procedures to solve a crime. In this case, the crime was the theft of a giant container of liquid nitrogen, necessary for the brewing of ice cream. The children had to examine strands of hair and match them to the suspects’, decode a message written in invisible ink, and lift the culprit’s fingerprints to discover their identity. Ultimately, Berman was revealed to have stolen the liquid nitrogen because she is lactose intolerant and didn’t want the children to have a delicious treat that she couldn’t enjoy herself.
The epic finale was not to be missed: Rachel Olfson ’14, Woodcock, and Cheung created ice cream by pouring liquid nitrogen into a bowl with ice cream ingredients and vigorously stirring to facilitate the necessary chemical reactions. An entire 10-liter jug of liquid nitrogen ended up being used in order to concoct the ice cream—which was served with sprinkles and chocolate syrup—to the children (and this writer) before they were returned to their parents.
Seo affirmed that on Science Saturday, the kids’ enjoyment of these activities comes first.
“One of our goals is to instill basic concepts of science like pressure and force, but a bigger goal is to get them to associate science with something exciting and fun,” she said. “I think Science Saturday does a great job of that because it creates this huge day of all these fun activities that end in ice cream.”