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August 2011

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Future scientists are exposed to everyday chemistry

By Melissa Kerr
August 2011

Sharon Beard, center

Beard, center, welcomed the young group to the 6th annual SEE Camp at Delta House in Durham. (Photo courtesy of Melissa Kerr)

participants during a moring workout

The participants were encouraged to get the blood pumping during a morning workout. (Photo courtesy of Melissa Kerr)

young scientists ready for hands-on exposure to science

The campers get ready for hands-on, everyday science. (Photo courtesy of Melissa Kerr)

a parent assisting campers impale a balloon

One of the campers' parents assisted a group to successfully impale a balloon with a wooden skewer. (Photo courtesy of Melissa Kerr)

Danielle Watt, Ph.D., explaining the basics of acid and base properties to campers

Watt, right, explained acid and base properties to a group of young campers. (Photo courtesy of Melissa Kerr)

Tonya Gerald, Ph.D., leading a group in an experiment

Gerald, standing, led a group of young scientists in pipetting acid for an experiment. (Photo courtesy of Melissa Kerr)

Many NIEHS scientists and staff members volunteered their time and expertise to show the youth of the area that chemistry is everywhere during a science education program June 25 in Durham, N.C., as the Durham Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Science and Everyday Experiences (SEE) program held its sixth annual day camp with the theme “Celebrating the Year of Chemistry.”

Around 40 children, ages 9 through 14, from Durham and surrounding areas, participated in the half-day program at the Delta House. The camp was designed to provide the campers and several of their parents an opportunity to view the wonders of the mundane through the lens of chemistry.

Durham SEE chair Sharon Beard, an industrial hygienist with the NIEHS Worker Education and Training Program, said her focus is outreach. Scientists were invited not only from NIEHS, but also from North Carolina Central University (NCCU), North Carolina State University (NCSU), Duke University, and the N.C. Chapter of the American Chemical Society. “One of our goals is to get chemists into the community,” Beard explained.

The day began with a morning workout for the children, parents, and volunteers. Not only were the children provided with balls, hula hoops, and jump ropes, the volunteers also led a group dance. After a welcome from Beard, the participants separated into three groups with the parents forming one of their own (see text box).

A full program of hands-on learning

NIEHS scientists Elena Braithwaite, Ph.D., a staff scientist in the Comparative Genomics Group, and Danielle Watt, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow in the DNA Replication Fidelity Group, ran a program designed to teach young children the basics of polymers, acids, and bases. The children used balloons and petroleum jelly to learn about air pressure. Braithwaite and Watt also brought out several everyday chemicals to illustrate their practical applications.

Watt, in her third year of volunteering with the SEE camp, believes the children should learn that chemistry does not stop at the classroom door. She said, “I feel if we can relate science to something [the children] do every day, they wouldn't shy away from it so much.”

Darlene Taylor, Ph.D., and Tonya Gerald, Ph.D., professors at NCCU, taught the older campers as they tried their hands at making two different polymers, Obleck and Goop. The participants in this group also ran some experiments examining the chemical properties of cooked cabbage using acids and bases.

Taylor explained that it is important for young people to have hands-on and fun exposure to science. “SEE Camp is particularly important because of the diverse [educational backgrounds of] students who participate in this camp. Diversity is a key element in creativity,” she explained.

William Switzer, Ph.D., from NCSU, taught the younger students about the states of matter. He demonstrated several ways that matter can maintain its state, as well as how it can be manipulated in unique ways, including the ever-popular use of dry ice. Switzer said he hopes to instill an interest in chemistry, and science in general, into the youth of local communities. “It's incredibly important for young people to maintain interest in the sciences,” he explained.

Making science a family affair

Many of the camp activities were set up specifically so that parents could participate and perhaps extend the learning into the child's everyday life. Rhonda Powell, mother of 8-year-old twins from Raleigh, was excited to have her children participate in the SEE camp. “I think if you can do math and science, you can do anything,” she said.

The SEE initiative of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority encourages African-American children to continue to show interest in science and mathematics through immersion in fun, thought-provoking activities that can translate into everyday life. The program strives to make science education a family affair by reaching out to children and their parents.

(Melissa Kerr studies chemistry at North Carolina Central University. She is currently an intern in the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison.)

William Switzer, Ph.D., taught the younger campers the states of matter

Switzer, left, discussed states of matter with a young camper. (Photo courtesy of Melissa Kerr)

Joan Packenham, Ph.D., right, and Marian Johnson-Thompson, Ph.D., talking with the parents of the young scientists

Packenham, right, and Johnson-Thompson, center, explored opportunities that parents can provide for their children. (Photo courtesy of Melissa Kerr)

Shown, left to right, are Martha Barnes, program analyst with the  Program Analysis Branch, Johnson-Thompson, Beard, Watt, Packenham, and  Braithwaite
NIEHS staff and scientists took an opportunity to help the local community. Shown, left to right, are Martha Barnes, program analyst with the Program Analysis Branch, Johnson-Thompson, Beard, Watt, Packenham, and Braithwaite. Not Pictured: Shawn Jeter, a technical information specialist in the Information and Data Management Workgroup. (Photo courtesy of Melissa Kerr)

Involving parents in science education

Marian Johnson-Thompson, Ph.D., professor emerita of biology and environmental science at the University of the District of Columbia and retired NIEHS director of Education and Biomedical Research Development, and Joan Packenham, Ph.D., director of the NIEHS Office of Human Research Compliance, led a session for parents. Parents learned about programs specifically designed to expand a youth's interest in science and math. In addition, parents picked up many ideas for incorporating scientific and mathematic principles into their everyday home activities, through grocery shopping, cooking, gardening, composting, cleaning, and outdoor activities. 

An example that parents found interesting was capturing fireflies, or lightning bugs, watching them luminesce, and then talking about the chemical mechanism of bioluminescence. Parents were told not to shy away from exploring science because they may not be familiar with the scientific and mathematical principles themselves, but to use the experience as an opportunity to explore and learn with their children. Their instructors reminded parents that the internet could provide all the information they would need.

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