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Hands-on science

Unique field trip opportunities for N.L. junior high schools

By Kelly Foss

A group of junior high school students participated in field trips hosted by three departments in the Faculty of Science recently.

Students in lab
In the biology lab, one experiment involved isolating chloroplasts from plants and testing it for photosynthetic properties.
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

The Department of Biochemistry first opened its doors to high school students for a hands-on science experience three years ago, when about 60 youth visited over two days. Last year the Department of Chemistry joined with Biochemistry; the two departments hosted 750 students over a couple of weeks.

During the month of May, members of the Biochemistry, Biology and Chemistry departments brought almost 1,600 students from 12 Eastern Newfoundland schools to the St. John’s campus – some from schools two hours away.

Facilitated by members of the chemistry department, students carry out a number of experiments, including dissolving aluminum foil into a blue solution containing copper to make copper metal. Biochemistry experiments include extracting DNA from fruit, while in biology, one experiment involves isolating chloroplasts from plants and testing it for photosynthetic properties.

Engaging and exciting

Some teachers whose students came to campus in previous years began inquiring in September to confirm the program would be offered again this year.

Biochemistry experiments included extracting DNA from fruit.
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

“Last year, we invited four local junior high schools to participate,” said Dr. Karen Hattenhauer, an assistant professor of chemistry and one of the program’s organizers. “It was such a success we applied for a Public Engagement Accelerator Grant to see if we could grow.”

The resulting funding allowed the group to hire graduate and undergraduate students to help staff deliver the program and open registration to any school interested in attending.

“It was one of the most engaging field trips, and most successful activities at promoting science education, that was available.” — Dr. Mark Berry

This year, thanks to the Department of Biology’s involvement, the program offered new and exciting elements.

“The fact that we filled all our slots within 48 hours of registration opening, with little more than word-of-mouth advertising, tells you all you need to know about how beneficial teachers feel this is,” said Dr. Mark Berry, head, Department of Biochemistry.

“The feedback I got was that it was one of the most engaging field trips, and most successful activities at promoting science education, that was available. It’s also a lot of fun to see the kids’ responses when they actually get their hands wet – sometimes quite literally – and do ‘real science.’”

Greater connection to Memorial

The departments designed their activities to meet junior high science curriculum outcomes. Program organizers say they hope offering students a fun and stimulating opportunity to visit Memorial’s science labs will give them a greater connection to the university and reduce some of the intimidation that inevitably goes with enrolling at a large campus.

Students dissolved aluminum foil into a blue solution containing copper to make copper metal in the chemistry lab.
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

“The hands-on focus of this program has the promise of strongly connecting these students to the activity of knowledge creation, one of the most profound ways that universities contribute to Canadian culture,” said Dr. Tom Chapman, head, Department of Biology.

“We tend to get overly fixated on research programs and grant dollars and forget that science needs to be fun,” Dr. Berry added.

“Without undergraduate students there is no university. Activities like this are where we can really provide that initial spark of enjoyment that is going to lead to a lifetime interest in science, and future Memorial undergraduate enrolments.”

A greater need

With the three departments close to capacity, organizers hope to build on the program even more. They recently met with other science departments to see if there was interest in joining next year’s field trip offerings, which could lead to expanding the program to other grades.

Unfortunately, not all interested schools were able to take advantage of the opportunity. A week before the field trips began, one school backed out because they couldn’t afford the bus to come.

“It’s a shame there isn’t more financial support available for events like this,” said Dr. Berry. “In times of increasing “fake news,” pseudo-science, and anti-education/science sentiment across the internet and social media platforms, there is more need for science literacy than ever.”

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