Winter Study projects illustrate scientific concepts to kids

Over 120 elementary school students and their parents invaded the Morley Science Laboratories this weekend for “Science for Kids,” an annual event that brings together Williams students and fourth graders from the local area for hands-on science workshops. This year’s workshops included “Play with Your Food,” “Electricity and Magnetism,” “Forensic Science: Who Kidnapped Hobbes?,” “Physics is Fun!,” “Physiology and the Senses” and “Splash Around.”

The program is the culmination of a Winter Study course taught by Lawrence Kaplan, professor of chemistry and Birgit Koehler, assistant professor of chemistry.

“The purpose of the program is twofold: to have [Williams] students see what it’s like designing workshops and learning how to present them, and to give kids from the community a chance to do hands-on science experiments,” Koehler explained.

The workshop is also a bonding opportunity for parents and children, as they work side-by-side at the lab tables. Koehler pointed out that College staff regularly participate with their children, as did a computer science professor and a Buildings and Grounds employee who were among the attendees this year.

“When we first developed this idea many years ago,” Kaplan said, “we thought it was an opportunity to do what is called outreach to the broader community. It wasn’t until later that I appreciated how many members of the Williams community are participating.” Kaplan recalled one year when “Science for Kids” was not going to be run; he received phone calls from College employees who were dismayed to find the program absent from the Winter Study course catalogue.

The 23 Williams students who participated this year were divided into teams of three or four and were responsible for choosing a topic, researching the content, and designing the presentation.

The individual experiments ranged from the classic vinegar and baking soda “volcano” and the soda bottle “tornado” to less commonly-seen exercises like blood type analysis. Fourth graders had the opportunity to touch a Van der Graaf generator, test themselves for color blindness and create a homemade compass.

“We held practice workshops early last week,” Koehler said. “We gathered the materials to make sure that the experiments work, because what you find on a web page or in a book does not necessarily work in practice.” Students were also required to sort through how best to present often-sophisticated scientific concepts to young children.

Koehler and Kaplan sat in on the “dry run” of each workshop. “We, as a practice audience, tried to make the kinds of mistakes a fourth grader might make, and ask the tougher questions a parent might ask,” she said. Indeed, student presenters occasionally meet parents who are experts in the very field that their workshops explore; Koehler recalled a judge who visited a forensics station with his daughter in a previous year.

Joe McCurdy ’04, a prospective history major and a member of the “Physics is Fun!” group, said that “not really knowing much about science helps a lot because in a way we’re on their level.”

“It was pretty easy with the help of the parents, and the kids come up with pretty good answers,” McCurdy said.

The fourth graders represented approximately 20 elementary schools, and some traveled from as far away as the Pittsfield area. Williamstown Elementary School and the Brayton, Greylock and Sullivan Elementary Schools in North Adams were among the schools represented.

According to Koehler, the Winter Study Committee provides the bulk of the funding for the program, although occasionally the Dean’s Office and the chemistry department contribute additional funds.

Caleb, 9, of Williamstown Elementary School, said that his favorite station of the weekend was “Play With Your Food.” “They made a pickle glow, which was really cool – they just passed electricity through it,” he said.

Betty, 10, of Brayton Elementary School, described an imploding soda can at the “Physics is Fun!” station. “We took cans and put an inch of water in them and heated them up. Once the water’s all gone you put it in a cold bowl of water and the can gets all crinkled,” she said, describing the rapid condensation as the steam-filled can was quickly transferred from a hot plate to cold water.

Inspired by the weekend’s experiments, Betty eagerly described an experiment that she planned to try on her own at home, which undoubtedly combined elements of several of the workshops she experienced. “I’m going to get a cold bowl of water and take a match and set the water on fire with all these chemicals in it,” she said, as her mentor looked on with a chuckle.

As for the Williams student teachers, Betty had only one thing to say: “They’re cool.”