Angela Weiss, a researcher with the Beckman Institute’s Theoretical and Computational Biophysics (TCB) group, found out that her child’s summer camp group was about to spend a week learning about science without the benefit of talking to actual scientists.
Since the children had learned about other professions from the professionals themselves during the camp, Weiss thought it only made sense for them to get insight on science from scientists – and she was in a position to do something about it. TCB is a world leader in creating molecular scale dynamic computer simulations of biological processes, which means the group produces the kind of standard and three-dimensional images and videos that can impress even an eight-year-old.
So Weiss arranged to have three groups of 75 total students in the 5- to 10-year-old range visit TCB’s space on Beckman’s third floor in August and listen to the group’s scientists describe amazing biological processes using even more amazing images and videos. The 3-D images required the children to don special viewing glasses and had many of them leaning forward in their chairs for up close views of biological processes such as protein folding.
“I heard a lot of oohs and ahs, particularly when they saw our 3-D images and videos,” Weiss said. “Our group in particular is good for little kids because it’s safer than a wet lab. We could show them how science works in a safe environment. And we can visualize it for them, impress them. We have images and videos that make it easier to explain to little kids. Here pictures can tell the whole story.”
Ross Bodnar is a Ph.D. student with the TCB group who enjoyed communicating science to the children, who were part of a summer learning camp at Next Generation School in Champaign.
“We love science and we like to share it with others,” Bodnar said. “Talking to kids about science means to show them that their everyday life is ‘scientific’ as they are trying to figure out how the world works, and that this can be a lifelong endeavor whether you actually work in science or not.”
Another researcher who spoke to the group, Melih Sener, echoed those sentiments.
“Science, like art, can affect the lives of ordinary people – even those who are not professionally trained in it,” Sener said. “Science does this not only through indirect benefits via technology but also through the impact it has on the way we perceive the universe and our place in it.”
Bodnar also thinks that outreach efforts such as this will show people that scientists have the same kind of passion for their work that people in other professions do.
“I believe that activities such as the one with Next Generation Summer Camp allow us to reach young people and their teachers at a time when our efforts have the most impact,” Bodnar said. “They allow us to challenge negative stereotypes about who can become a scientist and what scientists do. They allow us to share the excitement of science with those who have not yet discovered it for themselves.
“They allow us to build fruitful partnerships with those who teach and mentor our children every day. And, for me personally, these activities serve as a reminder of why all of the training and hard work needed to succeed in science is worthwhile.”