Try teaching fifth-graders about polymers. Their eyes may just glaze over. But offer those same children an opportunity to make a batch of slime—even if it comes with a science lesson—and they couldn’t be happier. Throw in some Mentos geysers and an Alka-Seltzer rocket and you have engaged science learners! That’s the approach two Penn State Altoona faculty members, Science Lab Coordinator Lynn Dalby and Assistant Professor of Chemistry Justin Huffman, are taking with Lions Learning Lab, their on-the-road science classroom.
With materials as simple as glue or water, plastic bags or cardboard, breath mints or contact lens solution, “we bring physics and chemistry and Lynn brings food science [to our shows],” Huffman says. Even though the demonstrations are not mysteries to them, he says, “there’s stuff that we do that I’m amazed at. It’s just out of common stuff. It’s almost like magic. They enjoy that.” And, he says, “they remember the stuff we teach them.” More than once Huffman and Dalby have heard, “That was the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.”
Hands-on opportunities for the children are a large part of the shows. A popular feature, of course, is slime. “Slime is huge. Kids know how to make slime in 100 ways. It’s all over the Internet,” Dalby says. “I don’t think they understand they’re really doing chemistry.” In some cases, students get to create something, such as a motorized car, and compete. “We do STEM challenges and give them materials and a certain amount of time to build something.”
Students who seem to be having difficulty in the challenges are not left all on their own, though. Huffman says, “If we see someone having trouble we give them a little nudge.” And if they master something easily, they might be encouraged to “take it to the next level,” Dalby says, such as “you could redesign to make it go faster, make it go straight.”
Surprise can be a key element of the demonstrations. “Sometimes we don’t tell them what’s going to happen. When we took the show to Bishop Guilfoyle, there were a lot of things they hadn’t seen,” Dalby notes. This spring they visited Juniata Gap Elementary where “we did a double liquid nitrogen cloud; it created a fog that came off the stage and underneath the table. The kids loved that.”
The “crazy scientists,” as some audience members have called them, just completed their first summer camp week at Penn State Altoona, where campers had the opportunity to make those geysers and rockets. Both stress that while some of the activities may sound dangerous, it is always “safety first.” According to Huffman, “Campers explored gases, polymers, electricity, light, propulsion, etc. They also engaged in STEM activities such as building motorized cars and paddlewheel-powered boats using only a limited number of supplies. Throughout the week, they learned how common everyday products worked (such as glow sticks and diapers). The campers enjoyed the entire week of science, working with each other, exchanging ideas, and displaying a healthy competitive spirit!”
Lions Learning Lab has grown out of the partnership Huffman and Dalby created during Penn State Altoona’s annual science show Spooktacular Science, where they found an audience for their science demonstrations. “Steve Spangler was sort of a guide for us. At Spooktacular, Dr. Richard Flarend [associate professor of physics] would do his physics stuff, we did our hands-on stuff,” Dalby says. For her it was an adjustment to become a performer: “I had to get out of my comfort zone—it was the fear of being in front of so many people.” She obviously succeeded because the duo became so popular that teachers asked them to visit their schools and give the same presentations. Their appearance on the Central PA Live TV show brought even more requests for appearances.
Huffman knows that if children don’t see people doing science, they may not envision themselves doing it either. “I think we’re the most exposure they may have to it. Kids don’t have Bill Nye the Science Guy or Mr. Wizard these days,” he says. “They may not have a teacher who makes it really fun or supports them in some way.” Or their school may not be adequately funded: “Some of them can’t afford a microscope. Our shows give them a chance to utilize equipment they wouldn’t otherwise have.”
There’s another layer to their mad-scientist-ness—these demonstrations show “what you can do with an engineering degree,” Huffman says. The children may have heard of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) but not know what it really means to them; with Lions Learning Lab, they can see STEM in action. Again Huffman and Dalby are thinking of the children who don’t have that special teacher or a school with good funding. Their demonstrations, Huffman says, “make the playing ground fair and equal.” Students may start out making elephant toothpaste but they could end up as engineers working on new rocket fuels. Lions Learning Lab shows it’s not that big a step.