Fourth-grader Zakar Martin cut a lemon in half, pushing a nail into the squishy side of one half and a penny into the pulpy side of the other half . He then clamped one end of a wire to the copper penny and the other end to the zinc nail. The result: Electricity flowed through the wires, as evidenced by a volt meter.
The eyes of the 32nd Street School/USC MaST Magnet student widened.
“I liked science before, but I really like it now,” Martin said with enthusiasm. “What I like most about it is learning that an everyday fruit can make energy. That’s pretty cool.”
For Martin and 42 other children, the exercise helped to demystify the complexities of science.
Serving as a response to President Obama’s national Science, Technology, Engineering, Math initiative to increase achievements in science and math over the next decade, the Young Scientist Program (YSP), overseen by the Joint Educational Project (JEP) at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, aims to erase any fear of physics, science or engineering. Working in partnership with five USC community schools from the USC Family of Schools, YSP also encourages students to think about careers in science.
Under YSP, USC undergraduate and graduate students teach natural, life, earth and engineering sciences to fourth- and fifth-graders at five USC community schools during their allotted time in science class.
On April 26, the children participated in the YSP Energy and Motion Studio hosted by JEP in partnership with USC’s Women in Science and Engineering (WiSE).
“We really want to get fourth- and fifth-graders ready for life sciences or engineering,” said Nadine Afari, YSP program director and lecturer at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering. “This Energy and Motion Studio is laying a foundation that physics, math and science can be fun and interesting.”
As children at the studio rotated among four stations, they received a crash course on the principles essential to learning how energy and motion work. Each station allowed the pupils to put into practice what they learned about food energy, light energy, matter, atoms and Newton’s laws of motion.
“It is important that they have a strong science base,” said Allyson Brown, a YSP teaching assistant and a recent USC Dornsife graduate in neuroscience. “We want them to understand science so they are not scared away from a wonderful field of study.”
At the “Lemon Battery and Squishy Circuit” station, youngsters tasted astronaut food and learned that the calories in the treats are converted into energy.
YSP volunteer Alice Hall-Partyka, an environmental studies major at USC Dornsife, helped fourth-grader Steven Delu create a “lemon battery.”
“I’ve noticed in working with the students that they love science, and they tell me they want to pursue careers in science,” she said. “Doing activities like this helps them understand science in a way a textbook doesn’t.”
Handling the lemon, Delu didn’t mind getting his hands sticky as he carefully connected wires to a penny and nail.
“It was fun,” he said. “I learned that if you use liquids like a grapefruit or lemon and you put a metal and copper object in it, then you can make electricity.”
Students learned about force and the center of mass at the “WiSE Dance and Newton’s Laws” station, where they watched a video on movement to better understand how motion relates to the body.
At the “WiSE Balance and Core Motion” station, the children learned about weight distribution and balance as they stood on two feet, then one.
Jill McNitt-Gray, professor of biological sciences and director of the Integrative and Evolutionary Biology Graduate Program at USC Dornsife, helped students understand the importance of nutrition and body movement. If you want to generate a force, such as throwing a ball, she told the children, you must have the energy to do so, which is where nutrition comes in.
“We wanted to show them that science is fun, and it’s meaningful to how they interact with the world,” said McNitt-Gray, who also holds an appointment in biomedical engineering at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering. “They had a good time.”
Tina Koneazny, associate director of JEP’s administration and educational outreach, was pleased with the event.
“You have a picture in your mind about what it might look like, and it’s great to see it with your own eyes,” Koneazny said. “It’s great to see the kids laughing, learning and having fun.”
For fourth-grader Danielle Lopez, the studio planted a seed in her brain.
“Maybe I’ll be a scientist,” she said.