Opening kids' eyes to science

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Mary Burt, with her daughters Katie and Libby, is part of Whitman College's outreach program to bring Science to area grade schools.

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Mary Burt with her daughters Katie and holding Libby, is part of Whitman College's outreach program to bring Science to area grade schools.

Science is happening. Everywhere.

It's used in everything, from agriculture to cooking to disease research to engineering to studying the origins of the universe.

And in today's world, one with ever-increasing technology and demands to meet the needs of the planet along with a growing population, trained scientists are in high demand by employers.

In Walla Walla, Whitman College faculty and student mentors will bring that message home in a community science fair targeting students in sixth through eighth grades. A first for the college - and one it plans to hold each year - the culmination of middle school student research projects will be displayed April 22 at the Reid Campus Center Young Ballroom.

"It provides a chance to use their curiosity and put it into practice, a chance to get a mentor and learn," said Mary Burt, Howard Hughes Medical Institute science outreach coordinator for Whitman. "Whether they have a career in science or not those are useful skills to have for life."

"Science is on the forefront of energy efficiency, on the forefront of the future," she added. "If students' experiences with the economic downturn has led them to be more concerned about finding a stable career, then certainly studying science and technology may become more interesting to them."

A fair also has value beyond the project a student chooses.

"With a science fair project, kids learn by doing," said Rachna Sinnott, director of foundation and corporate relations at Whitman. "They really learn how science is done and that is so much more effective than just hearing someone talk about it. Also it's a good way for kids to learn about how the world around them works" and the value of communicating clearly in presenting their work.

As a judge, Sinnott said she will be looking for evidence that students did most of the work themselves, that they've put thought into the experiment, developed a question they want to answer and to be diligent in finding an answer. They need to be able to explain it.

"It's OK if the project didn't work - that's part of science, and a good lesson for them to learn," she said, adding that it's about experimenting and seeing what happens.

There's a world of resources in school libraries and online to inspire project choices, or the inspiration could come from something the student has always wondered about.

Kurt Hoffman, a physics professor at Whitman, said students can look at websites or even something simple such as modifying a recipe. "Replace with water with milk and see what happens to the cake you are baking," he said. "Or try to grow plants in sugar water, salt water or plain water."

"It's important for (students) to explore and try to make something and learn from the process," he said. "An important piece for the children is the self discovery. That there are questions they can ask and then answer on their own. They're in control of the situation and they don't have to be looking to other people for good ideas."

The idea for the science fair itself evolved out of workshops Whitman science faculty host for science teachers in area schools, Burt said.

"I have only been at Whitman since August 2009, but in the time I've have been here I have been extremely impressed with how committed the college is to share their resources with the community. Science outreach is only one part of that," she said.

The run-up to the first fair is already generating a lot of buzz.

"We are going to try it. Make it a communitywide event, offer support and mentoring ...," she said. "Middle school is a key age. If this is received well, I'd love to see it expand."

Encouraging students to look to the sciences can serve them anywhere, even in a tough economy, Burt said.

"There are so many opportunities. They can provide for themselves and make the world a better place. They can improve the world and themselves. It's important to have science literate citizens. When making decisions about their health, taking care of a loved one, choosing what car to drive, it's so important to be science literate.

"It's not just about being in a lab; it's more a way of looking at their world and questioning," Burt said. "This can help with anything they do in the world."

Sidebar:

Area sixth- to eighth-graders must register the Whitman College-hosted community science fair by March 30, with a clear idea of their project.

This premier event is limited to the first 50 students' projects. Prizes will be available.

From 1-3:30 p.m. April 22, students will be on hand at Whitman College's Reid Campus Center Young Ballroom to present posters showing their project and explain their process of inquiry and research. The fair is open to the public.

For details and to register, email May Burt at burtmb@whitman.edu., or call 509-522-4441 on Mondays and Wednesdays.

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