Demonstrations bring science alive at Mark Twain
By Steve Bowman
Editor, The Brentwood Spirit
There’s nothing exciting about milk. To most kids it’s the boring white liquid they pour on their breakfast cereal.
But on Thursday night in the gym at Mark Twain Elementary School, several students stood at a folding table staring down at plates of milk with surprised expressions on their faces.
“Wow!” said one.
“Cool!” said another.
In his or her plate of milk each student had put a drop of food coloring, which didn’t do much. But when a drop of liquid dish detergent was added, the color suddenly spread through the milk like a swirling kaleidoscope. Guiding the students was Julie Kirkpatrick, whose daughter Madison attends the school.
“It’s a molecular reaction where soap is pushing fat molecules away and the color shows us the reaction happening,” she explained. “It’s just a pretty way to show it.”
Kirkpatrick’s table was one of 16 set up in the gym for the Second Annual Family STEM Night. Dozens of students and their family members spent an hour moving from table to table learning scientific principles through hands-on discovery. It’s part of the district’s initiative to enhance learning in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM.
The event was organized by Theresa Reynolds, now in her second year as the district’s Elementary Science Specialist. It supports the district’s efforts in Project Lead the Way, a statewide initiative to improve engineering education. She recently finished training Mark Twain and McGrath teachers in using the project’s curriculum.
“We want to move students away from the textbook approach and toward actually doing science,” said Reynolds. “We looked at lots of different programs this summer and we found we really liked Project Lead the Way. The goal behind it is to get students into a more hands-on approach to science and learning. Make it more project-based.”
Reynolds said most of those staffing the tables on Thursday were Mark Twain parents who work in scientific fields and students from Brentwood High School and Nerinx Hall.
One station was led by James Vandervoort, a mechanical engineer. He helped students discover that not all light in the universe is visible with the naked eye. He pointed an infrared TV remote control at them, which was invisible until they viewed it through a video camera.
Another station was staffed by Yoichiro Ikeda, a Mark Twain father who works as a scientist at Washington University. He had students hold a test tube containing a solution that dramatically changed colors whenever he added substances that altered its pH balance.
One station had students reassemble the bones of a human hand, in the form of paper puzzle pieces, using an illustration of an X-ray as a guide.
“We want students to understand both structure and function because they’re intertwined,” explained Reynolds. “If it’s not properly structured, it won’t function. So if the student doesn’t construct the hand bones correctly, they have to build a cast for their hand.”
Reynolds believes students will learn scientific concepts more quickly if they’re provided ways to participate in the discovery. That much is evidenced by her email messages, which end with the William Yeats quote, “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”