October 2010

The School at Columbia University’s Science Expo


This past February, The School at Columbia University hosted a half-day science expo, with the goal of making kids realize that science is all about inquiry, curiosity and exploration. 


Expo attendees learned about bacteria, nanobots, bird brains and speech, computer generated environments, volcano magma, obesity, genetics and other areas that scientists were investigating.

It all started when Inbar, my beloved 10-year-old daughter, declared in a tone of complete surprise, “What, scientists are still discovering new things?” and, with an even bigger shock, “What, you discover new things? I thought all you did all day was write e-mails.” That is what made me decide to organize a science expo at The School at Columbia University— my daughter’s K-8 school.

Planning the Expo

The concept behind the expo was to make kids realize that science is all about inquiry, curiosity and exploration. I made a plea to my colleagues, asking them to come share what they are doing in their labs, what questions they are asking and why they are asking those questions. I was surprised at how easy it was to recruit my colleagues— 38 scientists volunteered, a good number of whom are faculty members at Columbia University.

I wanted the event to be a success, but how does one explain topics such as computational complexity, statistical genetics and epidemiology to children who still are grappling with basic arithmetic operations? I recruited the school’s science teachers to come to our aid and paired each scientist with an elementary or middle school teacher, whose expertise was in presenting complex scientific concepts to a young audience. Together, the teams formulated an accessible language and designed engaging hands-on activities that brought the cutting-edge of science to the K-8 classroom.

The Exhibits

Attendees received a "Passport to Discovery,” which distilled scientists’ work into one salient question and shared pictures of the scientists from their elementary years.

Preparations for the event were intense and further intensified by our inherent competitiveness: Put a bunch of scientists together on some task, and we will all try to outdo one another, even if the task is designing the most striking science exhibit for young kids. Activities included looking through microscopes at neurons, bacteria and fruit flies, modeling DNA recombination through cutting and pasting, observing electric fish, constructing models of molecules, games of coordination to test learning of motor skills and many activities in physics, chemistry and engineering.

Helen Causton and I designed an exhibit on how variation in DNA codes for phenotype. This included streaking different yeast strains on Petri dishes, DNA “code-cracking” puzzles and testing who can taste phenylthiocarbamide. I wanted the older kids to understand why genetic association studies are so difficult and used height as an example. We stacked pennies to measure differences in height (the width of each penny being the contribution of a single allele to height) and used interactive software I designed for kids to visualize how effect size and sample size influence our ability to identify a quantitative trait loci in association studies. With proper visuals, the kids could comprehend genetic association even without a knowledge of statistics.

Getting People to Attend

Video Interview

ASBMB writer Nick Zagorski gets the detailed scoop on the School at Columbia University's recent science expo in a companion interview with some of the teachers, administrators and students involved.

The planning was an enormous amount of work, and we wanted the science expo to be attended schoolwide, by children from Harlem to Wall Street. PR was needed because, sadly, the American public does not share the passion for science that many of us do. The school stepped up to the challenge. Annette Raphel, the head of school, allocated significant funding; the communications liaison and the parent association led an extensive PR campaign and the music department composed songs about science to sing with the kids. Additionally, the curriculum was adapted mid-year to include a special unit about scientific inquiry. At the end of the unit, students thought up science questions which decorated the walls of the school. These included, “How can space always be there with nothing making it?” and “How are languages formed?”

The Event

On the day of the event, the school was transformed into a six‑story, hands-on science museum, with each classroom illustrating different research topics. I was surprised to find a packed house of people, waiting for the opening speeches by Nobel laureate Martin Chalfie and Columbia University Dean of Engineering Feniosky Pena-Mora. Afterwards, attendees were handed a “Passport to Discovery,” which distilled scientists’ work into one salient question and shared pictures of the scientists from their elementary years. Then, the crowds wandered through the exhibits— each room was crowded and electrifying, as professor after professor explained complex concepts to gaggles of excited school kids. When the expo ended, the biggest challenge was closing— four hours of science had just whetted the crowd’s appetite, and security was needed to help clear families out of the building.

Those four hours were both exhausting and exhilarating. We typically had 20 to 30 people at our exhibit at any given time, all spread across the different activities. I most enjoyed one-on-one discussion with the kids, which required flexibility— the little ones shot unexpected questions of all kinds. The parents were just as thrilled and curious as the kids. Some even told me: “I never realized how exciting science was— I always viewed it as something nerdy.” The event changed the way many perceive science; and, if it inspired even one child to become a scientist, it was well worth it.

The biggest surprise for my colleagues and myself was just how rewarding the experience was. We found so much gratification from working with this age group, perhaps because the kids were so impressionable and enthusiastic. I have come to realize that the key obstacle to training the next generation of American scientists is the meager pool of talented undergraduates interested in science. Outreach at this young age really can make a difference. 

Dana Pe’er (dpeer@biology.columbia.edu) is an assistant professor of biological sciences at Columbia University.


Next page >> Annette Raphel, the head of The School at Columbia University, talks about the expo.


Science-Expo-2A Transformative Experience


The School at Columbia University is only seven years old, and is faced with the ambitious task of providing pre-high school education of the caliber that has made its university partner so esteemed— without competitive admissions. A lottery-based school, where 50 percent of our students come from Harlem, Morningside Heights and the Upper West Side, and the other half have parents who work at Columbia University, we arguably are one of the most diverse independent schools in New York City. Our students create a robust community, but their parents don’t always share experiences, so one of our highest priorities is to bond our community around the intellectual mission of the school. We have offered many opportunities for parent engagement, with varying degrees of success. Dana Pe’er’s idea had a ripple effect, first to our faculty, then to Columbia scientists and finally to our children and their parents.

We know that understanding and appreciating science is life changing, both for children whose parents work in academia and for children whose parents have not completed high school. We also know that teaching science from a text does not begin to electrify children in the ways that current scientists talking about real questions and research does. And, we also know that when real scientists share their work with faculty, it enhances the skill sets, perspectives and energy of an already talented group. We had lofty goals for our science exposition, and they were exceeded, leaving us hungry to exploit the potential of our initial relationship with practicing scientists.

The event’s success sparked a desire on both sides to continue the collaboration between researcher and science teacher. The science teachers particularly enjoyed the opportunity to expand their knowledge of the latest scientific discoveries through their interaction with the leading researchers across science and engineering.

At the end of the day, we had many more children considering science as a career, our own teachers totally re-energized about the importance of their work and scientists appreciating the complexity of taking sophisticated ideas and demonstrating them to children. This was one of those unforgettable moments in a child’s education. It is clear to everyone that science in our school is a priority and the work that our volunteer research scientists did was transformative. 

Annette Raphel is the head of the School at Columbia University.


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