Adults wonder how to get kids interested in science. One way, Tim Boyle (1815) and his volunteers have found, is to collect them in a room and accuse them of stealing your dog. You have their immediate, undivided attention. Then teach the students to use science to find who really did the deed.
While the approach is not systematic teaching but merely the arousal of interest in scientific techniques, it is still somewhat stunning to experience the effect achieved by Boyle’s group, one classroom at a time. There’s nothing grandiose about it. They won’t save the world and certainly won’t get rich. But Thursday morning two weeks ago, 25 fifth graders from Bellehaven Elementary School came into an impromptu classroom — the meeting room in the Advanced Materials Laboratory on University Blvd. — sat down on the wall-to-wall rug, and learned that Tim’s dog Beaux — yes, Beaux the Magic Chemistry Dog — had been dognapped. And that Tim thinks one of the kids sitting in front of him took his pet. And Tim isn’t going to do the purported chemistry magic show until his dog is found.
Who’d do such a thing?
Of course it’s all in fun. The kids laugh and protest. They have their teacher Ms. Jewell and a few parents in the room for backup; they’re not scared.
Tim says he can’t believe any of the adults who work in the building would do such a thing. But wait, he says: He has a fingerprint he believes was left by the perpetrator. He challenges the kids to take a fingerprint test. Interested, they agree. Led by Tim’s assistant and event manager, postdoc Bernadette Hernandez-Sanchez (1815), the volunteer staff provide each kid a pencil to blacken a square on a piece of paper. The kids press their finger on the blackness, place a piece of Scotch tape over their fingertips, and press that tape onto another piece of paper. Presto, each child has created a fingerprint.
The game is afoot.
Tim and his assistants — drawn from a pool of more than 60 willing volunteers internal and external to Sandia — project images on a screen to show how to match one set to another — the whorls, the dips, and other patterns. Do any of the students’ prints resemble that of the perpetrator? No? Then who stole the dog?
And now the kids are off, involved in a game in which there is no competition to be best of show, as in science fairs, or the best at solving problems in a particular field for a competition. What they are going to experience — fully — and only — is using science to find the answer to a problem that interests them.
Why? “Fourth grade, fifth grade is where kids make their career choices,” Tim tells the Lab News. “They say, ‘Oh, I can’t do math or chemistry,’ and they’re gone forever. Here, at a crucial moment in their lives, they get a chance to see that science is useful and fun. And that they’re good at it.”
For Galileo, it was inclined planes. For James Clerk Maxwell, it was wires, electricity, and magnetism. For Tim, it was fireworks and how they produced the varied colors of their displays. For these kids, still very young, Tim and his staff create an artificial interest, a la the TV program “CSI,” which uses intensive scientific investigation to solve crimes. Tim credits Bernadette, along with Sandia student intern Christina Baros (1815) and Saskia King (2701), for first creating a “CSI”-type program used by Sandia’s outreach MANOS program for middle school students, and then helping modify the program for elementary grades.
Tim shows pictures of four adults on a wall screen. These are the only people who were in the building at the time of the ’nap. One was the elementary school principal, Ms. Hamilton.
“That’s her!” the kids say excitedly. “She’s guilty!” It didn’t help Hamilton’s credibility to be the only suspect portrayed with a skeleton standing behind her.
“So, you think you can tell from a picture who’s guilty?” says Tim.
Energetic but indecisive
Now he shows a description of the habits of the four suspects. Some like dogs, some don’t. Some like ice cream, some lemonade. Some wear lab coats, some do not. The kids vote for guilt by a show of hands. They are energetic but, as a group, now indecisive.
Tim, sitting in the back of the room, raises his hand for each suspect, and Bernadette calls him on it.
“To me, everyone’s guilty,” he says, “until we prove otherwise.” Dressed in jeans and running shoes, a Spy-vs.-Spy T-shirt visible under his black corduroy jacket, with dark shades and thick dark hair combed forward over his forehead, he could be a walk-on scientist on the mathematically oriented “Numb3rs” TV crime show.
“So, from habits and appearances, you can’t tell?” says Tim. “Okay, let’s do some science.”
The kids, aided by Bernadette and other volunteers, inspect the “crime scene” — a collection of objects that seem to have nothing visually to do with each other, side by side: purple-colored water, the ransom note — “I have your dog! If you want to see him again, then you have to take Beaux out of the chemistry magic show” — a white spilled liquid, other oddities. “What do you see that’s strange, that’s a little unusual?” Tim asks.
“Purple water, right? What is that and why is it there? Is there anything that could lead us to the dognapper?” He points out other tiny bits of material that look as though they weren’t part of the original décor of the office.
Now the kids are broken up into groups. Each goes to a table where they watch or perform a particular kind of analysis. A pH test determines that one liquid found in a cup was acid-based, suggesting a drink enjoyed by two of the suspects. A chromatological ink analysis finds the ransom note was written by a gel pen. “Who uses a gel pen?” A nanotechnology lab (which takes some explaining) finds that nanoparticles of gold, treated with certain solvents, becomes purple in the water. “Who among the suspects do we know was working with gold nanoparticles?”
At the end of the analysis, the kids file back into the conference room, sit back on the floor, and line up suspects and attributes with analysis of the clues.
“We match the evidence to the suspects,” says Tim.
The guilty party, as portrayed unassailably or at least most probably by science was big, ostensibly friendly and even fatherly-appearing manager Bill Hammetter (1815).
“Give it up, Bill,” says one kid’s voice.
“Why’d you do it, Bill?” the others shout.
“I wanted Beaux to be my dog and I wanted my cat to be used in the show,” Bill confesses as he returns Beaux to the room.
The kids go off to celebrate the successful solution of the case by creating liquid-nitrogen-cooled ice cream.
Having fun, learning about science
The show has hidden costs. Someone needs to pay for a school bus to transport the kids and substitute teachers to stay with the kids who, for one reason or another, can’t come. There are supplies.
Tim and Co. figure they can handle the fourth and fifth graders from two schools in a week during winter break, and the same in spring. That means the team can excite kids in four schools a year. Tim tells the kids they can use science in jobs like engineering and chemistry and even firefighting. He keeps statistics on many positive results arising from the three-hour event — more students turned on to science; teachers, administrators, parents all happy with the project and more aware of Sandia; the possibility of a larger student base for Sandia among local students over the years.
But Tim needs a grant to continue this effective program.
Can he get it? He doesn’t have the buzzwords; he doesn’t mention “strengthening the syllabus” or “fortifying the science experience.”
The kids are just having fun learning about science. And, oh, yes, finding Beaux, the Magic Chemistry Dog.