Dozens of Connecticut elementary and middle school students descended on Yale’s campus on March 4 to participate in a unique science outreach program run jointly by the Yale Scientific Magazine and Yale Pathways to Science.
Taking place on six Saturday mornings every year at Sterling Chemistry Laboratory, Science on Saturdays aims to teach science to local students in engaging and accessible ways. The event, an initiative from Yale’s Office of New Haven and State Affairs now in its 11th year, emphasizes hands-on learning through experiments and demonstrations.
“A program like Science on Saturdays is really crucial in getting students invested in science, especially because we present a side of science that you won’t get a lot of in the classroom — an experiment-based, hands-on side that is significantly more fun,” said Stephanie Smelyansky ’19, the president of Synapse.
The events, which are open to the public, include science demonstrations by student volunteers followed by a lecture by a Yale science or engineering professor. The demonstrations cover a wide range of scientific concepts, from microbiology to conservation of momentum.
Smelyansky explained that the demonstrations are very effective in making science understandable and relatable, because they are observation-based.
“Kids observe the world around us really carefully — for example, they notice when something shrinks or changes,” she said. “Everyone is born a scientist; everyone observes the natural world around them, and we really capitalize on that to explain fundamental science concepts.”
Chemistry professor Kurt Zilm, the program’s faculty organizer, said that the goal of Science on Saturdays is to get the public engaged in science and to expose younger students to a variety of scientists.
He added that the event aims to introduce New Haven residents, particularly children who would be first-generation college students, to science and research resources available at Yale.
“We try to ask every speaker to say why and how he or she became a scientist,” Zilm said. “So, the kids will see that scientists come from all sorts of backgrounds and were just curious about science.”
Mechanical engineering professor Judy Cha spoke at this past Saturday’s event, which drew about 50 attendees. Cha described her recent research in nanoparticles and crystallization and taught students about the fundamental principles of molecular structure and atom arrangement.
Kendrick Umstattd ’19 said that she especially hopes to foster scientific curiosity in girls through the program.
“As an electrical engineering and CS major, I’m always excited when young girls are interested about circuits,” said Umstattd, who performed a circuit and battery demonstration. “I want to let them know that all of us at Yale are so excited for them to be interested in science and math.”
Fellow demonstrator Josh Perez-Cruet ’20 added that this outreach program not only promotes interest in STEM, but also can correct common science misconceptions through the demonstrations.
Seth Anderson ’20 similarly noted the importance of explaining the science in a way their audience — mostly students in elementary and middle school — can understand.
Anderson said that making simple metaphors is the best way to overcome this challenge and help the attendees become more excited about science. For example, in his instant snow demonstration, he compared the absorption of water by the sodium polyacrylate to the absorbent substance used in diapers.
“Science education is lacking in the U.S., especially science education focused on experiments and critical thinking,” Smelyansky said. “Doing a program like this, where we can bring people into Yale facilities, allows us to do a lot of demonstrations that we couldn’t do otherwise to illustrate the importance of science and to get kids really engaged with science.”
The next event in the lecture series will be held on Saturday, April 1, when chemistry professor Timothy Newhouse will speak about the organic synthesis of natural products.