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NIEHS in the Community: Durham's "Back to School Youth Fair"

By Colleen Chandler
September 2005

NIEHS staff who volunteered
Some of the NIEHS staff who volunteered to help kids learn about science with hands-on activities at the Durham "Back to School Youth Fair", from left: Keith Holloway, Sharon Beard, Marian Johnson-Thompson, Undi Hoffler, Joan Packenham, Elena Braithwaite and Mark Melton. (Photo by Blondell Peterson)

Three NIEHS employees, all sorority sisters, got involved in the "Back to School Youth Fair" in Durham because they wanted to touch the lives of underprivileged children. They rounded up a group of NIEHS staffers who were also willing to volunteer their time and expertise, and spent a day showing kids that science is all around them in their daily lives.

The NIEHS budget for these types of activities is small. NIEHS provided glassware, which was returned after use, brochures, key chains, but by far the biggest contribution was the expertise and interest of NIEHS staff.

Sharon Beard, industrial hygienist in DERT, Joan Packenham, health scientist in DIR, and Marian Johnson-Thompson, outreach coordinator at NIEHS, are members of the Durham Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. The sorority's Science & Everyday Experiences, or SEE program, and several other organizations sponsor the annual "Back to School Youth Fair" each year in Durham. The event has grown every year since it was first held in 1999. This year, it was held Aug. 6 at Hillside High School, where the women were able to set up in the school's labs. Between 350-400 kids participated.

Working as part of the sorority's Science in Every Day Experiences program, or SEE, the women spent countless hours planning, finding sponsors, purchasing supplies and equipment that were not donated, setting up equipment and organizing volunteers. Beard chairs the Durham SEE and Packenham serves as co-chair. Johnson-Thompson chairs the National Advisory Board of the national SEE program.

"By this introduction [to science], they begin to see it as natural and not a remote discipline that's difficult and hard to master. It also helps them to be more scientifically literate and for some, it may be an introduction to the interest in science as a career option," Johnson-Thompson said.

The three women recruited volunteers from NIEHS: Michaela Jones, a summer intern from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who is working with Johnson-Thompson; Elena Braithwaite and Undi Hoffler, both Intramural Research Training Award fellows; Mark Melton, a biologist and assistant professor at St. Augustine's College who also brought his son, Mark Jr.; and Keith Holloway, a computer support specialist. Elliott Gilmer, otherwise known as the sound man who sets up microphones and other audio/visual equipment, volunteered to cook lunch for the kids.

The back-to-school fair features a variety of educational activities for the kids, including a science session where they can experience science firsthand. Using materials commonly found around their home or school, the experiments were designed to show that science is a part of everyday life, and understanding basic scientific principles in not only important in their everyday life, but interesting and fun as well.

The kids were divided into groups by age. Packenham took one age group, Beard another, and Johnson-Thompson, working with a local physician, took the last age group. To reduce the size of each session, kids were again divided into smaller groups and rotated into the various activity sessions held throughout the day. One of the day's sessions was science, and the science program leaders got together to plan and rehearse age-appropriate science activities for each group.

Leaders of the experiments led five to six sessions with different kids throughout the day. Kids in the oldest group lead by Packenham learned about electricity and circuits, the difference between simple and complex circuits and how to generate power from fruit. Beard's group learned that if you put Vaseline on a balloon, then carefully put a wooden skewer in it, the balloon will not pop. They also made mucous, which kids call "slime."

"It's wonderful to see the kids' eyes light up," Packenham said. "I always think, this may be the spark that interests them in science." She said that besides the supplies and the fun of learning about science, the fair also exposed kids to good role models in the community, which has more subtle effects on the kids' development. Johnson-Thompson said these kinds of activities ensure these kids, when they become adults, understand the mission of NIEHS and, as taxpaying citizens, support it.

At the end of the day, the kids all received book bags filled with school supplies, including things like rulers and protractors. Local businesses donate supplies and services such as breakfast and snacks and school supplies. Durham police sent a representative to talk to kids and parents about safety and gangs. Johnson-Thompson secured a grant from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund and Delta Research and Education Foundation, which were combined with assistance from a number of other organizations, including Delta Sigma Theta.

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