Middle School Students Visit Campus

On December 18, 2013 by Grad Forum

Photo of pre-stained mammalian cells taken by student participants.

On Thursday, November 17, approximately 70 Woodstock Middle School 8th graders got a taste of life in graduate school when they visited campus to learn about career paths in science and engineering. The event was organized by Erek Alper, a graduate student in physics and astronomy, and his GK-12 partner teacher, Ryan Becker. Additional support came from Dartmouth’s Science Outreach Coordinator Sara Riordan, and several other graduate students.

The students visited labs in three departments on campus. In the Department of Physics and Astronomy, Alper shared pictures and stories from his recent visit to NASA to watch the launch of the Mars MAVEN probe. In the Thayer School of Engineering, Professor Vicki May led a tour of the machine shop where the students learned about 3D printing. Then the students designed and laser-cut 3D glasses to take with them.

With help from molecular and cellular biology graduate students, Samantha Roberts and Kemi Awoyinka, and postdoctoral fellow, Huaiying Zhang, the students learned about microscopy by swabbing their cheeks and viewing the cells using high-powered microscopes. The MCB graduate students and postdoc also taught the students about fluorescence microscopy, which is a process of looking at compounds by shining light of a specific color on them. For example, when you shine blue light on green fluorescent protein, it emits a green light. The students looked at pre-stained mammalian tissue cells.

Following the visit, Zhang observed, “This experience made me appreciate what I do daily more, and enhanced my skills to explain complex concepts in plain and understandable language. What I hope for the most is for them to find that science is not only intellectually stimulating, but also fun too.”

Over lunch, the visitors attended a Science Cafe and met other graduate students. These grad students included representatives from earth sciences, molecular and cellular biology, ecology and evolutionary biology, psychological and brain sciences, and physics and astronomy. The 8th graders asked questions about the graduate students’ research, experiences in graduate school, and careers in science. They were even given an opportunity to try on clothes researchers wear in Antarctica.

“School Science Cafes are a great professional development opportunity for grad students, providing a fun way to practice talking with friendly audiences about their work, while inspiring young students to continue their studies in science, math, and engineering. It’s a win-win experience for all!” noted Riordan.

According to Alper, the purpose of the event was to “give the kids an idea of what grad students actually do, to help dispel any insidious myths about white lab coats and goggles, and to just show them some cool possibilities in the sciences.” Professor May similarly noted the importance of showing that careers in science are more varied than children think, and that engineers do not just “sit in a back room crunching numbers,” but instead do many different things, like design products and processes.

In addition to breaking down stereotypes about science and scientists, the event was about showing that science can be exciting. Judging by the comments from both the Woodstock Middle School visitors and the Dartmouth volunteers, the event was a success in all respects.

by Anna Prescott

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