Hamilton science faculty have been busy the past several weeks sharing their expertise with students much younger than college-age audiences. Elementary school children from Oneida, Clinton, and New Hartford have descended upon the Taylor Science Center for a morning of science exploration over the past four weeks as well as in March during Hamilton’s spring break.
“The science faculty take the time to do this as educational outreach to the local community,” said Chemistry Professor Karen Brewer, who organizes the programs. “We recognize that schools are often necessarily focused on the basics of math, reading, social studies, and science and that the students probably haven't met real scientists or have any image of where science happens.” These visits are also supported by the COOP, whose staff work on scheduling and contact with the schools.
Faculty from the psychology, chemistry, physics, biology, and geosciences departments hosted anywhere from 60 to 98 students per visit, in 30-minute sessions, using kid-friendly interactive experiments to show what their area of science is all about.
Each visit began with an introduction to psychology, teaching students about interactions between the brain and the eye through optical illusions. They then were split into smaller groups to begin the multi-departmental rotations.
Faculty varied from week to week in hosting the activities, but all took their opportunity to wow the children. Brewer and Director of Laboratories Shawna O’Neil led the chemistry lab, introducing the youngsters to a series of experiments. They watched the making of “elephant toothpaste” (the product of a foaming chemical reaction). With the help of Hamilton students, the youngsters explored the effects of temperature on gas volume, seeing a party balloon shrivel when doused in liquid nitrogen and swell when reintroduced to room-temperature air. After shattering flash-frozen flower petals, the enthusiastic children created their very own slime.
Clinton elementary students were treated to a meeting with Biology professor Andrea Townsend’s five-week old baby crows. The children took turns feeding them watermelon and worms and petting the young birds.
Biology Professor David Gapp, although retired, made guest appearances at two sessions, introducing the children to snakes, an alligator, and a giant tortoise who traversed the lab.
The students also explored physics with Professor Gordon Jones and Assistant Professor Kristen Burson who showed the properties and effects of air pressure. Jones crushed a can simply by sucking out the air from the inside. To demonstrate the effects of distributing force, Burson laid down on a bed of nails. A teacher covered Burson with a “blanket: of wood and placed a cinder block on top. She asked for a student volunteer to smash a cinderblock on top of her and with the board to disperse the shock, she remained unharmed.
Each group concluded their visit with a timely and awe-inspiring surprise: a volcanic eruption. Professor of Geosciences Dave Bailey catalyzed the reaction that left foamy “lava” flying high into the air, much to the delight of the children.
Brewer summarized the importance of these visits. “There is a wonder in seeing live snakes, freezing a flower, seeing forces at play on a bed of nails, being fooled by optical illusions, and witnessing a simulated volcano. There’s great value in having students visit the lab, not just to see labs (which is a fascination in itself) but to visit ‘college,’” she said.
“The visit makes a lasting impression. Teachers over the years have reported that the visit to Hamilton is often the most remembered highlight of their elementary school years. It’s important to Hamilton as an extension to the local community of our educational mission and it is important to show just how fun the study of science is–it's not just fact collecting but real and inherently interesting.”