Princeton expo lets local students explore the wonders of science
By Steven Schultz
Princeton NJ -- More than 700 students from local middle schools came to campus March 17 to prepare DNA samples, map volcanoes and participate in scores of other science activities as part of the University's first Science and Engineering Expo.
Faculty, staff and students from across the University's science and engineering departments, as well as from the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab and local science-related organizations, pitched in to create a full day of engaging activities and demonstrations.
"This is a wonderful opportunity for our students to see what's going on here at Princeton," said George Luke, a seventh-grade science teacher at John Witherspoon Middle School in Princeton. The activities and demonstrations helped reinforce lessons students have learned in school, he said. "It gives a nice cross-section of our entire curriculum."
The middle school students came from Princeton, Hopewell, West Windsor-Plainsboro, Cranbury and Trenton. They rotated through four locations on campus: the Frick, McDonnell and Icahn labs and Dillon Gym.
Some of the demonstrations gave students a glimpse of cutting-edge experiments that graduate students would perform. In Icahn Lab, senior research scientist Geoff Lewen had inserted an electrode into the brain of a blowfly and was picking up signals from a single neuron that allows the fly to see side-to-side motion. When students moved their hands in one direction in front of the fly's eye, they heard the signals in the form of a crackling noise over speakers. Moving their hands another way produced no sound.
"It helps make it more interesting," said seventh-grader Abby Cryan, who had just finished counting interactions between two species of fish in a tank. "It kind of makes me want to be a scientist."
"It's a lot different than class," said Meagan Quinlan, an eighth-grader. Her classmate Monika Mostowy added, "It's a lot of fun. You get a lot more examples, real examples."
That was the hope of the expo's organizers, who saw an opportunity for many departments on campus to join together and produce a major event that would capture students' imaginations. Participating organizations on campus included the Princeton Center for Complex Materials, the Princeton Environmental Institute, the Graduate Women in Science and Engineering and the departments of molecular biology, chemistry, physics, ecology and evolutionary biology, psychology, geosciences and mechanical and aerospace engineering.
"It is so important for kids to see what is ahead of them and to know that what they are doing in their classes will lead to something," said Ann Sliski, the outreach coordinator of the molecular biology department and an organizer of the event. "So I hope they see that science is fun and they can do it and be part of it."
The expo also helps build connections with local schools and shows teachers that University scientists are an accessible resource, Sliski said. Each table with a hands-on demonstration also had background information for teachers and ideas for activities that they could try in the classroom.
The interest among schools was overwhelming and is likely to prompt more expos in the coming years, Sliski said.