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Scientists Cultivate Interest Among Local Middle Schoolers

April 19, 2006

To Melanie Disabb, a second-year graduate student at Northwestern University, the reason for trooping over to the local middle school twice a month is simple. “We want to persuade middle school students, even those who are not necessarily interested in science, that science can be fun,” she explained.

Disabb is one of about 15 graduate students from Northwestern’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering who are participating in the HANDS program, an outreach program designed to show students at Haven Middle School in Evanston that science and engineering is enjoyable and interesting.

The goals of this program, whose full name is Haven and Northwestern University Discover Science, are similar to those of the CHANSE program. (See main story on page tk.) In addition to giving back to the community, the graduate students want to build an interest in science and engineering in the middle school in the hope that the students will be more likely to pursue these fields in high school and college. 

For each of the two-hour sessions, the graduate students demonstrate a scientific concept and then work directly with the middle school students, either conducting an experiment or creating a project. In the last two years, the students have made cement and concrete and compared which one was stronger; built bridges out of toothpicks and glue and tested how much weight they would bear; learned to use the scanning electron microscope; and made clocks powered by two potatoes, among other things. Additionally, the students have taken field trips to Northwestern to use the laboratories there. 

Although the graduate students try to cover all areas of sciences, they emphasize materials science and engineering. “We’re trying to show students how material sciences are a part of their everyday life,” explained Marcus Young, this year’s co-leader along with Disabb.

So far, the program seems to be working. Seventh Grader Allison Williams and Eighth Grader Ashok Raife both described the program as “fun.” Like most of the 15 to 20 students participating, they like the hands-on approach and the projects.  

Ashok, who is in his second year of the program, said he enjoyed the bridge building project and making molds with metal. “In science class, you don’t get to do many labs,” he said. “Here, we actually build things.”

Allison, who also started coming last year, said she likes the projects and the camaraderie among the middle school and graduate students. “The instructors actually participate with us,” she said. “I think they have as much fun as we do.”

One of her favorite projects was designing a capsule that would protect a raw egg as it was dropped out of the school’s third-floor window. She also liked using the blowtorches and combining chemicals to make an explosion.

“It’s fun because were doing things and not just reading about them,” she said.

Originally, when HANDS started at Haven more than 15 years ago, it was intended to encourage minorities and females to consider the field of science and engineering, said Willa Williams, a seventh and eighth grade science teacher at Haven. Although that is still the program’s intent, any sixth, seventh or eighth grader who has an interest in science can attend.

“It’s not a gifted program, per se,” explained Ms. Williams. “It’s for students who might be motivated by this program to consider a career in science.” 

Like the CHANSE program, the hands-on approach is what appeals to the middle school students. “It’s an inquiry-based class, rather than a text-based class,” she said.

Most of the students who start the program in sixth and seventh grade love it so much they continue coming until they graduate, Ms. Williams said.  “We have no trouble getting students to participate because the current participants tell their friends about it.”

Allison Williams (no relation to the teacher) said she talks it up among her friends.