October 2010

The School at Columbia University’s Science Expo

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.


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