Beyond the Bench: Hosting a Jr Science Café at the Museum of Science & Industry

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A school group participates in a Jr Science Cafe at the Museum of Science & Industry. (In this image, measuring craters & forces with a Northwestern astrophysicist.)

Imagine a big classroom room full of elementary and middle school students, a bunch of eager beavers if you will. Imagine these uniformed kids and their stern-faced teachers surround you, waiting expectantly for you to tell them about your research.

This was the beginning of my experience at the Museum of Science and Industry. At the front of the room, I had sweaty palms and foot cramps from battling the pressure building inside. I had spent weeks preparing for this particular seminar to go a certain way, but that went out the window when I saw everyone coming in. Oh well, TIME TO SHINE!

Last spring, I was invited to give a workshop for elementary and middle school students as part of the Museum’s Jr Science Café program.  These Science Cafes are special. They spotlight minorities working in STEM professions. STEM professionals from minority backgrounds give talks and run activities, giving kids a chance to explore what science is and how it affects everyday life with the support and encouragement of a real scientist role model.  These folks and this program are conduits; a way of bridging the gap.

I have always wanted to serve as a mentor and inspiration for students who look like me, helping to build a pipeline to bring more minority students into the scientific field; a field that is in dire need of diversity to improve the quality of science.

At MSI, I wanted to convey my science and my work to these students -- and avoid being monotone and boring. These were kids after all, and I wanted to come across clear and excited about science.

Designing my workshop had been quite the challenge. See, my research revolves around understanding follicle development in the ovary, and how proper follicle growth contributes to overall fertility. The subject of sex can be taboo in some circles and I could imagine “ovaries” and “fertilization” being met with giggles by the elementary and middle school students.

With this in mind, I created a presentation centered on how my work in understanding fertility is important in building families. I also created a hands-on activity that used small beads from the craft store to simulate encapsulating follicles in alginate, similar to the way I would in the lab. A follicle is a structure that holds the germ cell of an egg and helps it development. It’s not an egg, but with the right support it someday will be.

These demos seemed to be easy enough when I practiced them at home. But despite my best efforts, I saw the students struggle at first. But you know, students, when challenged, continue trying to overcome that challenge. And it was a joy to see. They stuck with it and soon I had conversations and questions bursting from every corner of the room.

There was only one problem. As I was walking around, helping some of the students encapsulate their “follicle” beads, I happened to overhear a conversation between group members:

Student A: “How many were you able to get?”

Student B: “I only got two.”

Student A: ”Ha, I got three. Three of them.”

Student C: “Guys, I actually got six eggs in here.”

Pause. Wait a minute.  What?! Eggs? EGGS?! Encapsulating EGGS! Not follicles, but EGGS! Somehow the difference between an egg and follicle had been lost in translation.

Normally this would be a little frustrating; the fact you explained your research as best you could, but it still didn’t quite make sense to your audience. That’s tough. But as I progressed around the room, catching and correcting this conversation and others like it, I looked at their faces. And in that moment I noticed something important. These kids were having fun doing lab science. FUN, putting these “follicles” or “eggs” into the alginate. They were using lab skills like pipetting with increasing confidence to encapsulate the beads. They were asking me questions about fertility and science in general. Even their chaperones got involved.

So maybe not everyone understood the nuance of everything I was throwing at them right off the bat. But our conversations were sparking their minds. We were sharing and discussing things they were not used to seeing. This opportunity opened their minds, showing science can and does apply to them. And there I was at the forefront of that learning and stimulation. And maybe seeing someone like me doing what I do will inspire them to start thinking they can someday do it, too. And that is all I ever ask for.

 

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Comments

What a great article,

What a great article, engaging our young people to explore science. I am glad to see that the kids are really into the research and enjoying the process of encapsulating the follicles. I am sure that they will not forget the experience.

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