Grits and Purls

Spinning yarns about the grit of life

Playing with plasma and spectral glasses. Physics is fun!

We spent Saturday wandering around the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery at the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. Faculty, students and a host of other volunteers filled the building with hands-on activities for the young and young-at-heart. The efforts that these people put forth to provide the community with meaningful experiences of science were amazing, all voluntary, all borne from a genuine desire to educate about the work that is their passion.

My daughter was amazed and delighted.

She discovered that she can conduct electricity and spent time getting plasma to chase her hands and fingers around, and wow, she held onto the bottom of a light bulb and made it glow! Next she donned spectral glasses and discovered a rainbow in a tube of white light.

She learned about cows, and recorded her impressions on paper. She learned about biomimicry—as she watched water bead up on a lotus leaf then played with “self-cleaning” fabric designed using some of the characteristics scientists have discovered about lotus leaves.

She studied chocolate to learn about how liquids behave, and she learned a new word “viscosity”. She encountered a chocolate bar that weighed ¼ of what she does, and learned that on a scale, four of those candy bars would equal one of her. And to reward her for her study? A marshmallow dipped in a chocolate fountain. Of course.

She raced a paper boat—powered by soap. She stood inside a giant bubble. She pretended to be a robin and discovered what kinds of food she could eat. She attempted to slay a wooly mammoth. She listened to her heartbeat. She is still conducting a bioaccumulation experiment in her bedroom. She planted a carrot seed, played the ToxLand game, learned about respiration, looked at moths and butterflies with a magnifying glass, signed a pledge to explore the outdoors, saw live zebrafish embryos through a microscope, looked at roots growing in agar and learned about microorganisms.

Pretending to be a robin.

Did any of the science stick? Well, when we got home, I overheard a conversation she had with a friend on our front porch. She told her friend about the bioaccumulation experiment, the white daisy that is sitting in the vial of yellow water on her desk. And, when we were driving to the restaurant for dinner last night, she told me that we needed to record, in her Nature journal that she made, all of the things she had seen outside that day: a moth, a duck, a big bird (goose). So yes, she picked up some information.

More importantly though, her curiosity was piqued. She asked if she could hold a light bulb in her hand at home and make it glow. She has checked her daisy to see how it is doing, and told me all about the slowly yellowing petals.

The university was packed with parents, kids, grandparents, all there to play with science. I was amazed at the turnout, and it was a refreshing scene. I was delighted to be in a place buzzing with excitement about science. Seeing children (and adults) exploring and being excited about asking questions and using their brains was hugely uplifting and inspiring.

We cannot over value the contribution that our colleges and universities make to the community through activities like these—science expeditions, music camps and concerts, art shows and workshops, poetry reading and writing camps. They provide workshops for teachers, social workers and child care providers. They provide job training for an ever changing workforce. They drive the new technologies, discoveries and innovations that become the new industries and employers of the future.

I truly appreciate what colleges and universities bring to society, almost all of their outreach driven by volunteer hours, faculty, staff and students going above and beyond the job description. Amazing. We are incredibly fortunate to live where we do.

The next time you see a free program offered by a local college or university that piques your interest, go. You never know what you might discover—you might even make a light bulb glow.

©2012 Michele Arduengo. All rights reserved.

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