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March 11, 2010 Volume 31, No. 23

Gotta love the lava

Hands-on help

Reannia Harper, left, and Emma Day mix plaster of Paris to create a miniature volcano in a science club class for 8- to 10-year-olds led by a volunteer team of MU biological engineering students. MU Cooperative Media Group photo

Fun science

MU students help hook kids on hands-on experiments

Emma Day, 8, of Columbia, “really, really” wants to be a scientist when she grows up. “I want to be a scientist and make a machine that tells you why honey is sweet,” she says.

Emma and about 15 other children, ages 8-10, are getting a chance for early hands-on science training thanks to a volunteer group of biological engineering students at the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources.

The MU students lead 18 classes over three sessions throughout the year as part of the Columbia Parks and Recreation Armory Science Klub (ASK).

Classes have involved setting off bottle rockets; experiments in electricity; using pig lungs to explain the respiratory system; and one of the kids’ favorites — building and erupting miniature volcanoes.

“I like the volcano,” Emma said. “It splatters all over.”

The kids make the volcanoes by applying plaster of Paris to cone-shaped molds.

The volcanoes contain baking soda. Adding vinegar with red food coloring sets off a chemical reaction that creates the bright eruption.

“We believe the love for science starts at a very young age,” said MU graduate student Jasenka Memisevic of St. Louis. “There are science classes they take in schools, but sometimes they are limited in terms of hands-on experiments that they can do.”

The volunteer teachers also tell the children about different career paths they can take.

“The kids are like sponges,” Memisevic said. “Each class starts with a question about the lesson we will deal with. We give them a hypothesis and at the end of the class we try to see how much they have learned. It is amazing how much they do learn in a one-hour class. We make it a playful, fun experience.”

The class reflects the philosophy of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which holds that all children should have the opportunity to become scientifically literate, and for this to happen efforts must begin at an early age.

“When I was a kid we didn’t have anything like this,” Memisevic said. “Going through engineering school I definitely wish that I’d had more exposure to fun science experiments.”