Recently, about 20 students – each accompanied by a parent or grandparent – gathered in a classroom at Cook Elementary School for an after school workshop that was centered around putting together a science fair project.
Standing in front of a mock-up of a science fair triboard, Catherine C. Sangueza said that, when designing a project, you need to decide on a hypothesis – a scientific guess. With that in mind, if you were planning to pack up and move, do you think bubble wrap, newspapers or paper towels would do the best job protecting your drinking glasses?
“Bubble wrap is the best,” called out second-grader Shyyon Brim.
“Bubble wrap is the best,” called out second-grader Shyyon Brim. All but one of the other students agreed.“Our hypothesis is bubble wrap is going to do the best job,” said Sangueza, a community research associate with the Translational Science Institute at the Wake Forest School of Medicine, the workshop sponsor.
When it came time to test the hypothesis, eggs wrapped in bubble wrap, newspaper or paper towels stood in for drinking glasses. When you’re experimenting, you want to control the variables, of course, and fifth-grader Monet Williford was happy to establish a set height for the drops by having each student release his or her egg from in front of Monet’s forehead.
When each egg landed, Dr. LaChelle Waller, an assistant professor for the Center for Genomics and Personalized Medicine Research who organized the workshop, would pick it up and determine whether it had survived the fall intact. When she called out the result, Deanna Whitehead, who teaches fifth-grade reading at Cook, recorded the results on a chart.
At the end of the experiment’s first round, newspaper was clearly the inferior padding. It had the highest rate of breakage. Bubble wrap and paper towels had the same rate of breakage. What to do? Change the height variable, said the students. Waller did that by climbing up on a top of a desk and reaching straight out to drop the next round of eggs. From the greater height, bubble wrap was clearly the superior padding.
After the students got an understanding of how a science fair experiment could be set up, they partnered with one of the adults volunteering to serve as a mentor. The volunteers were a mix of undergraduates, graduate students, medical-school students and professors from Wake Forest, Salem College, Winston-Salem State, N.C. A&T and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
One of the program’s goals is to encourage students to consider a career in science, which is a big reason why Carly Kemmis, an assistant professor in biology at Winston-Salem State, decided to volunteer.
“I think we need to get students interested in science at an early age,” she said.
Kemmis sat down with Shyyon’s fourth-grade sister, Shacarriya Gillis, and their mother, LaTasha Gillis, to come up with some ideas. Shacarriya likes plants. Because a sunflower grows so tall, she decided to work from the hypothesis that it would grow faster from seed rather than another kind of plant.
Bryan Cox, a graduate student in molecular medicine at the medical school, sat down with fifth-grader Nia Burch and her mother, Shameka O’Neil. Cox pulled out a copy of a book called 501 Science Experiments and they started flipping through looking for inspiration. In the end, Nia decided that she liked the idea of answering the question: “How do different materials affect resistance?” by designing small parachutes out of such materials as a handkerchief, a plastic bag and paper.
Later, the group will gather back at Cook for a dry-run science fair to show off and to fine-tune their projects. With more than one student picturing a first-place ribbon in their future, lots of friendly competition lies ahead.