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NIH Record

Budding Young Scientists Aim for the Stars

By Kimberly C. Mitchell

Ever heard a 10-year-old kid describe the mechanics of jet propulsion? Or the principles behind refracted light? That's what some youngsters can do after spending 6 months in the Adventure in Science (AIS) program. From October to March of each year, these young scientists, ages 8 through 15, attend Saturday sessions on such varied topics as heart function, electricity and magnetism, optics and telescopes, human and animal anatomy, DNA and genetics, and microscopic life.

Dr. Rebecca Hackett helps a student prepare to measure the uptake of water and nutrients through the root system of a plant.

The droves of excited young participants who come to these Saturday workshops have already shown evidence of a burgeoning interest in scientific careers. Margaret Dunham, a 12-year-old who has participated in the program for the past 2 years, claims it has had a tremendous impact on her career plans. "I didn't know much about science before I started; my friends and I wanted to be actors like in the movies," she says. "Then I started AIS and it shifted my goals. It made science appear fun to me for the first time."

Originally conceived in 1973 by Dr. Ralph Nash, a NASA scientist who wanted to make science more exciting for his young daughter, the Adventure in Science program attempts to give science new life for students by allowing them to participate actively in science demonstrations and experiments. The program has grown phenomenally from its modest beginnings in Nash's basement, and now includes approximately 180 students who take classes concurrently at four sites every Saturday. Three of the sites are devoted to students ages 8 through 11: NIH, Bechtel in Gaithersburg, and Comsat in Clarksburg, Md. The fourth site, the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, is for students ages 12 through 15. The NIH site enrolls 30 to 50 students each year.

Paul Su and Sean Kelly test principles of architectural physics using straws, rubber bands and paper clips.
Many see the program as a much-needed tool to raise students' interest and achievement in science. The hands-on structure enables young people to experience science firsthand and make their own discoveries. "These sessions need to be 'minds-on' and not just hands-on," says Dr. Edward Max, who manages the NIH site along with Blanche O'Neill. "We want to promote lessons that actively involve the kids' thinking."

By engaging children's minds in scientific inquiry, the program can provide just the sort of impetus that many educators believe may begin to address the deficiencies in U.S. students' performance in the sciences. According to the results of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, U.S. students' knowledge in the physical and life sciences declines rapidly as they progress from 4th through 12th grade. The study suggests there is a need to find better ways to sustain young people's interest in science as they advance through secondary school.

Tonya Torres and Yasmeen Brown measure the vitamin C content of sample foods and beverages.

Many people believe the AIS program and others like it have the potential to transform textbook memorization assignments into vibrant experiences of discovery, and to make kids want to pursue science as a career or at least as fun exploration. One such believer is Dr. Bruce Fuchs, director of the NIH Office of Science Education. "One of the most important aspects of the program is that it can have an impact of immense proportions on kids, since many of them do not perceive science as fun," he says. "The neat thing about AIS is that each Saturday kids get together with adults who are engaged and excited about science. The adults are having fun with their work and the kids are reaping the benefits."

Many of the AIS teacher-volunteers agree that the best part of teaching is the opportunity to work with enthusiastic, highly motivated students who are eager to learn. "For me the best part is seeing kids get the concept of how a chemical assay works," says Dr. Steven Bauer, a scientist at the Food and Drug Administration who has taught in the program for about 5 years. Bauer, whose class teaches how to measure the amount of vitamin C in foods and beverages, sees the program as an excellent opportunity for young people to gain practical science and math skills. "The students like it because it's hands-on, they get to measure the amount of vitamin C in things like orange juice and HiC, and they learn how to do quantitative analysis and look at data from their experiments."

Kristen Seaman learns how to pipet DNA with a little help from Dr. Kathy Kelly.

Dr. Allen Barnett, a physicist at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, voices a similar sentiment: "The AIS classes excite kids' interest in science, get them interested and make them ask questions about the world around them." He teaches two classes: one in magnetic resonance imaging and the other on polarized light. And while he finds the experience enjoyable, he is sometimes plagued by the challenges and limitations of being a volunteer educator. "I enjoy doing it, but the major difficulty is my inexperience with kids, not knowing what to expect them to understand at different levels," he explains.

Most volunteers overcome such obstacles through experience and find that the rewards of teaching in the AIS program outweigh the occasional challenges. Dr. Christine Kozak, a section head at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, teaches a course on telescopes and optics. She considers the program's greatest asset to be its impressive array of volunteer teachers. "The teachers have a wide range of interests and expertise," she says. "I love to sit in on other classes when I'm not teaching my own. I think the teachers make the subjects interesting."

Margaret Dunham gets up close and personal with a live chick embryo that has just been released from an egg.

The classroom is not the only place students get exposed to outstanding scientists and researchers. Each year, the program culminates with a Parents' Day/student recognition event in mid or late March, when the students present their projects to parents and invited guests. This is their time to shine: the young scientists astound their audience with creative visual displays and in-depth descriptions of complex scientific mechanisms that often boggle the minds of adults. Another highlight of the event is the keynote address given by a prominent scientist in the physical, life or Earth sciences. In previous years, guest speakers have included two Nobel Prize winners in physics -- Clifford Shull and William Phillips, who won the 1994 and 1996 prizes respectively, and Joel Achenbach, a former staff writer for the Washington Post who is best known for his "Why Things Are" column.

Becoming an AIS volunteer instructor is easier than one might think. Prospective instructors must meet only two criteria: they must be able to communicate the fun and excitement of science, and they must enjoy working with children. AIS volunteers need not be scientists or even NIH employees.

Science didn't appeal to me at first because it was all textbooks, and textbooks are just a weight in my backpack," Margaret Dunham explains. "Now it's something real that I can use, and I enjoy it." The fact that AIS could change her mind, and the minds of other young people like her, makes this a program that might be worth checking out.

A variety of volunteer opportunities are available. If you are interested in finding out more about the Adventure in Science program or would like to become a volunteer, call Dr. Edward Max at (301) 827-1806.

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