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Opening Doors to Science for Young Students

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February 7, 2006 | by Megan Fellman

EVANSTON, Ill. --- When it comes to understanding scientific concepts, Tazwana Smith, an eighth grade student at Chute Middle School in Evanston, Ill., said that she learns best when she gets to see and touch rather than just listen to a lecture.

Thanks to a program administered by Northwestern University’s Materials Research Center (MRC), Smith and 14 other eighth graders at Chute get an additional chance to experience a hands-on approach to science each week through an after-school program called CHANSE. The CHANSE program, short for Chute And Northwestern Science Education, was established in the spring of 2005 as part of the Materials Research Center’s effort to reach out to the community and stimulate an interest in science among middle school students.

“There is a national need to revitalize interest in science and engineering,” said John Torkelson, director of the MRC and Walter P. Murphy Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering and of Materials Science and Engineering. “In addition to conducting cutting-edge materials research, we encourage young people to become the scientists, educators and researchers of the future by offering important educational programs such as CHANSE.”

Every Wednesday, a group of science and engineering graduate students and postdoctoral fellows from Northwestern visit Chute to talk about different scientific concepts and help the middle school students conduct hands-on experiments illustrating the weekly concept.

So far this year, the Northwestern students have talked about polymers and chains of molecules, liquid nitrogen, and velocity and gravity, among other topics, said Richard MacHarg, an eighth grade physical science teacher at Chute and the liaison with Northwestern.

In addition to meeting once a week at the middle school, the students also take trips to Northwestern to visit the labs there. In the fall, the students visited the Rock Mechanics Lab in the department of civil and environmental engineering to test the strength of the concrete blocks they had constructed the week before. At that session, the students designed concrete formulas and compared the concrete blocks to determine which concentration of substances made the strongest concrete.

While at Northwestern, the students also visited the Polymer Surfaces and Interfaces Lab in the department of materials science and engineering. Graduate student Michelle Lefebvre prepared silicon samples for the students to test contact angles using acetone and a spin-coating machine.

MacHarg said he is excited about the program because it gives his students an opportunity to actually apply some of the concepts he teaches them. “It gives them a chance to do some lab-related activities they might not have been able to do,” he said.

The program also gives the eighth graders an opportunity to connect with people a little older who are working in their fields of expertise. The role modeling is an important component, MacHarg said.

Additionally, he explained, the program stimulates interest and gives the students more confidence when it comes to approaching science. When choosing students for this program, MacHarg said he particularly targets underrepresented minority students to try to get them excited about science so they are more likely to pursue it in high school.

“A lot of kids enter science class with the predisposition that it’s going to be hard, and they won’t be successful at it,” he said. “This program gives the students a chance to see that science is not beyond their comprehension, and hopefully, that will build their confidence.”

The hands-on approach to science also appealed to eighth grader Evan New. He said he signed up for the program because he knew he would be able to conduct experiments each session. “We do experiments in school but not every session like we do here,” he said. So far, New said, he most enjoyed making silly putty and building a structure out of toothpicks and gum drops. The purpose of the exercise was to see which structure would hold the most weight. He and Smith teamed up to produce the winning project.

The middle school students also said they enjoyed working with the Northwestern graduate students. The feeling is mutual. Shara Dellatore, a graduate student at Northwestern, who taught the lesson on velocity and gravity, said she also gets a lot out of the program. In addition to having the opportunity to explain scientific concepts to others, she also has the chance to get students interested in science early in their education.

“The program allows the students to see how diverse and multifaceted science can be,” she said.

The Materials Research Center, one of the oldest interdisciplinary research centers in the nation, administers several outreach programs for middle school students, college students, graduate students and high school teachers. Information about these programs can be found on the center’s Web site www.mrsec.northwestern.edu.