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Apr. 14, 2009

West Side Science

by Karen A. Frenkel

Last Saturday afternoon in the cafeteria of a New York City public school, a ten-year-old boy gazed at a tiny, squirming worm in his palm. "I want to name it," I heard him say to a volunteer from the Lower East Side Ecology Center, "but even if I give it a name, it still won't be my pet." A desire to connect, sprinkled with a little hesitation, perhaps.

Close by at the Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine’s table, girls with plastic blue gloves handled tan, squishy globs of I knew not what. As I approached, I realized they were cradling kidneys, an esophagus, and other organs from human cadavers. One girl pointed to a grayish pair of organs and asked the Touro volunteer, “Are those lungs dark because of smoking?” The volunteer nodded. “And this is a normal uterus,” she said, handing the girl a womb. Then she pointed to another, very bulbous uterus and explained that it contained a tumor.

Catty-corner to that table, kids were dancing, gyrating their waists in order to keep hoola hoops elevated. They were congregated below a large sign that read, “Hoop Against Gravity” and “Hoop Contra Gravedad.”

For this was the first semi-Spanish language science festival at P.S. 165, the Robert E. Simon School on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, whose students are 73 percent Hispanic. The Ecology Center and Touro booths were among about 15 others set up for the Super Saturday Science Festival. Dedicated to interactive learning focused on science, the event was organized by The Morningside Area Alliance.

The kids were engaged and exuded enthusiasm. It seemed to me that a healthy mix of fun, curiosity, and seriousness permeated the room.

I moved on in search of the auditorium, where Ann Marie Cunningham, TalkingScience.org’s Executive Director, was handing out special glasses for a 3-D show in the upcoming Science Cabaret. Earlier, she and Haley Main, a bird educator from the National Audubon Society, answered questions about a rare pigeon, an Egyptian Swift.

Also at the talkingscience.org table was "Susan the Scientist," who makes science education videos. She showed her latest, “Why does the Sand Sound So Loud?” and handed out copies of the script so that kids could replicate her experiments about how sound travels. A Talkingscience.org blogger called “Science Mom” and her five-year-old showed how to make a soda bottle burp. Read about it here. And Barbara Juncosa, also known as "Dr. BJ, the Queen of DNA," showed kids how to extract their DNA from their spit using only liquid soap, rubbing alcohol, water, and a pinch of salt.

Ann Marie kicked off the Science Cabaret with a pigeon-naming contest and announced submissions by kids who had visited the TalkingScience.org booth. These were Houston, Snoopy, Flappy, Red, and Isis. Red got the most applause and a boy named Henry, who suggested the name, won a T-shirt.

Next, Ann Marie introduced a slim, blond young woman, Debbie Berebichez, as a “true Science Diva.” She is, in fact, the first Latino woman to earn a physics Ph.D. from Stanford University and now consults on Wall Street. Debbie asked the audience who thinks science is cool. “We do,” the kids roared back with loud cheers, hoots, and lots of hand waving. Then Debbie asked how many knew that high heels have to do with the Newtonian physics. The kids were quiet and listened raptly as she explained that a 100-pound woman wearing stiletto heals exerts as much pressure on the ground as does an elephant’s foot. She asked they knew why. A boy answered that the elephant’s huge weight is spread out over a larger area, but high heals press on only a tiny area of the floor. He, too, got a Super Saturday T-shirt.

Debbie asked the kids to name everyday activities that involve science. Someone shouted out cooking, because it involves chemical reactions. Another said watching the stars at night, and another said discovering galaxies. Three more T-shirts.

Outer space provided Debbie with a segue to scientists who create Hollywood special effects for other worlds, like Gerald Marks. A 3-D photographer and artist, he has worked with the Rolling Stones and Bjork, in addition to working for movie directors. He also teaches at New York’s School of Visual Arts. The lights went out and everyone donned their fancy glasses. We looked at a photograph of a seal in an aquarium. That was followed by shots of the moon and roller bladders on New York’s streets––Jerry explained that he likes to photograph skaters because he grew up in the neighborhood and used to ice-skate not far from the school. Then he showed sand dunes on Mars and a robotic vehicle that landed on it. “There were so many rocks nearby, that scientists gave them names. One is called Yogi,” he said, “for the baseball player.” The kids laughed.

Returning from outer space to Earth, Jerry showed a stunning shot of a radiolarian, are amoeboid protozoa that produce intricate mineral skeletons. This radiolarian was a specimen that Professor Dee Breger from Columbia University’s Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory collected from the Antarctic. Here it is, scanned in an electron microscope. That shot was my favorite. Oohs and ahs resounded throughout the packed auditorium.

Next on the program were hip-hop National Stroke Association artists A. D. Harris and Tiffany Newton from Harlem Hospital. Their mission: to teach kids how to recognize when someone is having a stroke and what to do. “Hip hop stroke, brain attack,” they chanted, and the kids chimed in. They sang “My Amazing brain, does so much,” and the kids echoed them. Once they had the kids' attention, A.D. and Tiffany divulged information without scaring or overwhelming them. They handed the kids a sheet of paper, The Hip Hop Stroke Brain Map, which showed the brain’s basic anatomy. And they came up with a mnemonic, F.A.S.T. for stroke symptoms: “F” for a droopy face, “A” for an arm that drifts down, “S” for slurred speech, and “T” for time to call 911. I didn’t catch what F stood for and asked a little girl sitting next to me. She didn’t remember either, but no matter. A cartoon quickly followed to reinforce the lesson. And after that, we reviewed F.A.S.T. one more time.

As a result, the kids did learn fast and seemed to have a lot of fun. If only every child in could attend such a super Saturday. There were role models, interactive “edutainment,” a balance of information from adults with a sense of wonder about the world that was contagious for both girls and boys. With more events like these, we might solve the education crisis in science, technology, and engineering. For much of life is a science cabaret, old chum. So come to the cabaret.

For information about me, please visit my site, www.karenafrenkel.com

About Karen A. Frenkel

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

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