A boy in an oversized black t-shirt proclaiming “Got Science?” darted across Davies Auditorium, stopped in front of a table laden with fruit, donuts and drinks, and grabbed a sugar donut in one hand and a Snapple the other.
He was a participant in the ‘Science Saturdays,’ a program that takes place every Saturday during the months of October and April. This past Saturday, students of all ages, their parents and community members came from all over New Haven and even as far as Queens, New York, to hear associate professor William Mitch give a lecture entitled, “What’s in your Glass of Water?”
The lecture was the second of the semester in the ‘Science Saturdays’ lecture series — the brainchild of Ainissa Ramirez, associate professor of mechanical engineering, who created the program in 2004 to bring research ongoing at Yale to the lay public.
Mitch spoke to an audience of over 100 on the topic of water, focusing on why and how waste water is treated and its impact on both humans and the environment.
Before the lecture began, however, students had time to mill about, eating breakfast and eagerly swapping surveys for raffle tickets. Students who filled out surveys handed out during the lecture, which contained questions about the lecture held the previous weekend, were entered into a raffle. Three winners won t-shirts, and one lucky student went home the proud owner of an iPod shuffle. These surveys help provide funding for the program, according to coordinator Patty Wooding, who began working for the program this year.
In the meantime, there was plenty to keep students busy. A demonstration table, with all kinds of scientific marvels — including a microscope, slides of flowers and bugs for students to examine, magnets, and even stuffed animal versions of viruses — on display, was available for the students’ entertainment.
The virus critters were an especially big hit: One student picked up one that looked like a grayish blob and shouted gleefully, “Look, Mom, I’ve got polio!”
Three Yale undergraduates, whose own interest in science had led them to volunteer at the event, staffed the demonstration table.
“It’s a lot of fun,” said Bryan Pitt ’12. “Kids are lots more fun to work with than grown people because [grown ups] have lost their questioning personality. It keeps you on your toes.”
When it was time for the lecture to begin, reluctant students were ushered away from the food and demonstrations and into the lecture hall.
Mitch’s talk inside centered on the unfounded fear many have of tap water, stressing that it is very similar to bottled water — but distinguishing it from its dirtier counterpart, ‘waste water,’ water that has been used.
“I think it’s important for people to understand where water comes from and to counteract false ideas about tap water,” Mitch said. “When people understand where their water comes from, and why, they’ll be less afraid.”
Mitch’s presentation drew upon examples from a variety of locations: He discussed water quality right here in New Haven and in places as far away as El Rosario, Honduras, where Yale Engineers without Borders traveled to help with a water shortage.
Toward the end of the lecture, Mitch explained that bottled water, despite its devoted following, is actually no more than “glorified” tap water.
“I don’t think bottled water is really necessary,” he said, at which point many audience members eyed their own water bottles suspiciously.
Bottled water, unlike tap water, doesn’t contain the taste of chlorine — but something as simple as adding lemon juice to tap water can achieve the same function, he said.
At one point, before continuing with his experimental demonstration, Mitch even had an adult audience member come forward to sniff a beaker of hydrogen sulfide, produced when water rusts — to verify that the substance does indeed smell foul.
The goal of the ‘Science Saturdays’ lecture series, Ramiraz explained, is to get students excited about science and show them science can be fun.
Ramirez added that despite common perceptions, the field is actually very diverse.
“I want [the kids] to see science as something they can do, something that they can aspire to,” she said.
Judging by the number of families who approached Mitch after the lecture to ask individual questions, it seemed the lecture did indeed bridge this scientist-layperson divide.
Ramirez said that while the program was initially created with New Haven residents in mind, Elis can benefit just as much as community residents from the lectures.
“I hope Yale students decide to get involved,” she said. “Even though it is a target outreach program, it allows them to see who the cool professors are without having to take the course.”