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  Geotimes - September 2007 - Education and Outreach

Taking Science for a Ride
Erin Wayman

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Photographs courtesy of Kathleen Scott
Traveling throughout New Jersey, the Rutgers Science Explorer is a mobile science laboratory that offers fun, hands-on activities to middle school students. The bus can accommodate up to 20 students at a time and features state-of-the-art equipment, including satellite Internet access and a plasma screen television.
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School buses usually take children to and from school, but the Rutgers Science Explorer isn’t a typical school bus. Instead of carting kids off to school, this bus brings school to the kids, making science more fun and less intimidating.

The Rutgers Science Explorer is a scientific laboratory on wheels that takes kids on a field trip without them ever having to leave their school’s parking lot. Complete with lab stations for 20 children, computers connected to the Internet by satellite, refrigerators, a microwave and a 106-centimeter plasma screen television, this compact lab connects New Jersey middle school students with real scientists from Rutgers University, who engage the students in hands-on activities that “the typical classroom teacher won’t have the time or inclination to do,” says Suzanne Brahmia, associate director of physics at Rutgers’ Math and Science Learning Center (MSLC).

MSLC provides outreach programs for K-12 schools in the communities surrounding Rutgers. Prior to the bus, these programs were largely confined to the Rutgers campus, where schools could bring students for demonstrations and tours of science buildings. The idea of using a bus came to MSLC director Kathleen Scott, a professor in Rutgers’ cell biology and neurobiology department, while reflecting on her own childhood experiences of visiting the “crime” bus at the state fair. The crime bus — a place “meant to scare you straight,” Scott says — allowed police officers to bring their safety messages to a large number of children and used a variety of activities, such as fingerprinting, to make learning about safety fun. If a bus could do that for crime, why not for science? “Gee, we could have a bus,” Scott says she remembers thinking.

With funding from venture capitalist John Martinson, who wanted to sponsor a math and science program because he was concerned that not enough students were choosing these fields as careers, the MSLC bought a bus and transformed it into a state-of-the-art science lab that began traveling to schools in the winter of 2006. The MSLC decided to aim the bus specifically at middle school students because “it’s a time when kids start losing interest in science,” Scott says.

Currently, the bus offers five different lessons from which teachers can choose, including how electricity works, the history of batteries and identifying skeletal remains, but “volcanoes and DNA are our best sellers,” Scott says. These days, thanks to TV shows like CSI, anything related to forensics is quite popular, but Kate Napolitano, director of instruction in the Hopewell Valley Regional School District in central New Jersey, chose the volcano activity for students at Stony Brook Elementary School in Pennington, N.J., because “the information that was provided directly matched the content of what the kids were doing” in their science classes, she says.

The origin and design of the volcano activity came from geology graduate student Ian Saginor and his advisor Michael Carr’s desire to improve upon the classic baking soda and vinegar model. “Pretty much every elementary student has made [this] volcano,” Saginor says. “Teachers love that activity, but it’s not really a great model of how a volcano works.” During one part of Saginor and Carr’s activity, the kids discover how the classic cone shape of a stratovolcano forms by pouring a watery sand mixture into a tube connected to the bottom of a clear container of water. By changing the pressure of the sand flowing into the container, the kids see how pressure plays a role in determining whether a volcano has an explosive or a more gentle eruption.

The hands-on component of the volcano activity definitely increases the fun factor of science for the kids, Brahmia says, but it also shows them that science isn’t just a “collection of facts” that needs to be memorized. She hopes these tactile activities, including one on the periodic table that she’s currently developing, help students understand that science is actually less complicated than they think and more accessible than they realize. Saginor thinks it’s working. “If you take out the jargon,” he says, “they understand the concepts. You don’t have to dumb it down.”

The volcano activity is further enhanced by Saginor’s real-life experiences as a scientist studying volcanoes in Central America. This helps the kids relate science to real people, not just the guys they see on the Discovery Channel, Napolitano says. Principal James Brunn of the Alexander Batcho Intermediate School in Manville, N.J., recalls his students referring to the Rutgers graduate students as “cool” after seeing their presentations. “I want the children to see young people doing science” to help break the stereotype of an old, nerdy scientist in a white lab coat, Scott says.

This, in part, is why the activities on the bus are run by graduate students. All of the graduate students who work on the bus participate in Rutgers’ Graduate Teaching Fellows in K-12 Education (GK-12) program, which is funded by the National Science Foundation. The program matches GK-12 fellows with middle school teachers. Through their collaboration, GK-12 fellows learn about teaching and middle school teachers learn more about math and science. The GK-12 fellows spend at least 10 hours a week working in the middle schools and/or teaching on the bus. Eventually, Scott hopes to get more graduate students involved in the bus than just the handful of GK-12 fellows. Right now, she’s planning a course that would be open to any math or science graduate student in the university who is interested in designing curriculum and teaching on the bus.

During its first three semesters, the bus has already seen 4,000 students come through its doors, and Napolitano, for one, is a self-proclaimed fan of the bus, saying its visit to her school was a real “home run.” It may have even been a little too successful: “The kids didn’t want to leave,” she says. “It was kind of hard to get them out.” As they exited the bus, she says, the kids kept asking “When is it coming again?” Napolitano hopes the answer to that question is soon, but the growing popularity of the bus might make that hard to do.

Wayman is a Geotimes staff writer.

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