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  Latest News  
  August 9, 2005  


  Science Enchants Summer Campers
Program with magical theme explores chemistry, fosters scientific literacy


On a July afternoon in State College, Pa., electric fans stir the warm air around 20 sixth-graders in an un-air-conditioned laboratory at Pennsylvania State University. The students—participants in a Harry Potter-themed science camp titled “The Adventure of the Apprentice’s Stone”—have just returned from a nearby cafeteria and are buzzing with postlunch energy, when Thomas J. Mullen, graduate student of chemistry and camp instructor, calls the room to order and begins a brief presentation on crystals. “Let’s have fun!” he tells his students as they commence the afternoon activities, which include crystal-growing experiments and art projects that teach about the shapes of crystals.
CRYSTALLIZING EXCITEMENT Suzanne Hamilton (left) and Joseph Gerber watch for signs of crystal formation at science camp.

This year, 70 students from grades four through nine attended “The Apprentice’s Stone,” which is part of a growing series of weeklong science-oriented camps hosted by the Eberly College of Science at Penn State. From one camp and 80 students in 2000, the summer program has expanded to 500 students in six different themed camps, with many students returning from previous years. The college has already licensed the operation of similar camps by Infotonics Technology Center in Canandaigua, New York.

It takes creative planning to simultaneously engage young campers and provide a meaningful representation of science. “The Apprentice’s Stone,” for example, combines the quintessential summertime activity—a trip to the swimming pool—with radiation-absorption experiments involving UV-sensitive beads and sunblock.

The Harry Potter theme is part of the kid-friendly packaging. The camp began, fortuitously, days after the release of the sixth book of the Harry Potter series. Some students were so engrossed in reading that they stayed indoors during breaks rather than play outside. “If we just called it science camp, only a few kids would come,” says Nicholas Bevins, an undergraduate math and physics major who mentored five students at the camp. He says the camp helps dismantle the stereotype of scientists as “white-haired old men in lab coats.”

The concept of a magic-themed camp might cause the lab coat crowd to arch a suspicious eyebrow, but the events of the camp are firmly grounded in reality. “We don’t want to overplay the magic part—we want the science to be real and accurate,” says chemistry professor Jackie Bortiatynski, who is described by colleagues as a major creative force behind the camp.

ENLIGHTENMENT Connor Speidel, wearing a wizard?s hat for good behavior, peers through a pair of polarizing light filters.
Sure, there are some “magical” happenings at science camp: Rocks glow orange and green under UV light, and crystals form spontaneously from saturated salt solutions. But the instructors emphasize that science only looks like magic to those who do not seek to understand it, Bortiatynski says.

Bortiatynski and colleagues from Penn State’s chemistry, physics, materials science, and electrical engineering departments developed most of the camp’s activities, with support from National Science Foundation grants to Penn State nanoscience research centers. Lockheed Martin Corp. provided scholarships to defray the $245 tuition for some students.

The camp combines high- and low-tech approaches to introduce the students to fundamental ideas in chemistry and materials science, focusing especially on the concept of nanoscale science.

Students begin their exploration of tiny dimensions by crafting 1:10 scale models of themselves out of pipe cleaners and clay. Later they look at nanowires through electron microscopes. They also use model atomic force microscopes (AFMs), designed by Penn State physics professor Peter C. Eklund, to “scan” wooden surfaces embedded with hidden magnets. The model AFMs operate by the same principles as real AFMs, except that they are on a much larger scale and use magnetic interactions rather than atomic forces to produce information about the underlying structure.

Mullen says the activities help his sixth-grade students learn about objects that are too small to see with light but can be observed with other tools such as the AFM.

Creating this sort of “scientific literacy” is the camp’s most important goal, Bortiatynski says, because the students leave better prepared to appreciate the challenges and opportunities of science, whether they end up as scientists or as civic observers and supporters of science.

Even the less-than-successful experiments can teach students an important lesson, says chemistry lecturer Daniel Sykes one morning as he weighs chemicals for the day’s activities. “Of course, the intent is for every experiment to work perfectly,” he says. “But lines of inquiry don’t always point straight ahead. Science is not an orderly process.”

Later that afternoon, the full day of activities seems to weigh on the attention spans of some fourth-graders who are performing an experiment with zeolites and detergent solutions. Dispensing with procedure, they haphazardly mix variously colored soap solutions to make a sickly green brew. The intended point of the experiment may be lost, but at least they are having fun at wizard … oops … science camp.
  Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2005

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