Undergraduate scientists share the joy of science with local kids

A new collaboration between the Fort Lewis College Chemistry & Biochemistry Department and Durango’s Powerhouse Science Center is giving local children hands-on explorations of the sciences, while teaching undergraduate scientists how to talk to the public about their disciplines. 

This year, two Chemistry majors pioneered the program that has them designing and instructing workshops for Durango-area homeschooled children. A similar collaboration between the Anthropology Department and the Powerhouse has FLC students designing summer archaeology workshops for children attending the Powerhouse’s summer camps. 

Located along the Animas River in downtown Durango, the Powerhouse Science Center is set inside a 19th century coal-fired, steam-powered electricity generating plant. Today it has been restored into an interactive museum that presents a variety of programs, exhibits, and activities educating the public about a range of scientific topics. 

“This program is a win-win. Local children gain access to mentorship from college science students and professors, and college science students gain valuable experience communicating complex phenomena to the public,” says Assistant Professor of Chemistry Callie Cole, who has been FLC’s liaison with the Powerhouse on the collaboration and supervises the two students presently in the program. 

“Students and scientists at FLC aren't the kind to hide out in their labs. They are the kind to spread their knowledge to increase the scientific literacy of our community,” she continues. “Our central goal is to create a more scientifically literate public. Scientific data is useless unless it is communicated, and therefore we invest in training scientists who are able to share their data clearly and understandably to both other scientists and the public.”

There is no concept that is too complex for children to explore. They are open to new ideas, and they naturally want to understand their world at a deeper level.

Assistant Professor of Chemistry Callie Cole

Cole also notes that there has been an unplanned educational message conveyed to the kids who take part in the program: that women make great scientists. “We who are designing and administering these workshops are all female scientists," she says. "So we can mentor these children as they expand their own understanding of what careers are available to them, which can really change a child’s life.”

The program is the brainchild of Cole and Donitza Ivanovich, the Education Director at the Powerhouse Science Center. The two met last fall and quickly found they shared a common goal: to find ways to bring scientists into the community to mentor local children. The result is the Homeschool Chemistry Program. Under the collaboration, the Powerhouse gathers and organizes the participants, and provides the workshop space. FLC provides the creative workshop ideas, materials, and students to instruct the workshops.

In January, Chemistry majors Adela Martens and Elle Runyan began designing monthly hands-on laboratory experiments for children ages 5-9 and 10-16. Under Cole’s supervision, the students create and teach the workshops, including testing and performing chemical demonstrations. So far, children from Durango and Farmington, New Mexico, have participated.

“We make sure that everything we teach is, at its core, experiential. Literally everything that we do is hands-on. No ‘passive learning’ takes place in these workshops,” says Cole. “There is no concept that is too complex for children to explore. They are open to new ideas, and they naturally want to understand their world at a deeper level. And the earlier children are exposed to these ideas, the better they will understand them and retain them.”
 

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