February 27, 2012
Science lessons a gas for ‘banana hammer’ students
College students introduce elementary children to the wonders of having fun with science
Jenny Novotney poured liquid nitrogen into three plastic bowls Saturday morning, placed some bunches of bananas next to them, and then waited for her audience.
Soon she and her fellow Cornell University student, Bryce Kobrin, faced several children and their adult mentors, part of a Cortland YWCA program called Bridges for Kids.
They helped the children make ice cream, freeze bananas to make “banana hammers,” and watch balloons deflate when placed in the liquid nitrogen, as gas inside them condensed, then inflate again after they were lifted from the bowls and the gas loosened again.
Around a second-floor room at the YWCA, other Cornell students demonstrated science for the children in other ways. One station involved mixing borax, a powdered cleaner also called sodium borate, and glue to make a form of Play-Doh, a soft sort of clay made by Mattel that can be molded into shapes.
The idea for the YWCA was to give children in the program — ages 5 to 11 — a fun way to spend time with their mentors, said Sara Earl, Bridges for Kids director. For the students, mostly science majors, the goal was to show children that science can be an enjoyable pursuit.
About 30 children came through the room in the first hour, trying different science stations. Earl said the children come from difficult family circumstances of various kinds and need a day out with someone once a month, in a group activity.
Most of the mentors Saturday were SUNY Cortland students, some of them childhood education majors.
The 11 Cornell students came from several programs that encourage community outreach. A few were from the Society for Physics. Their majors spanned the sciences, including human development.
Novotney, a graduate student in chemistry, and Kobrin, a freshman, kept the children at their liquid nitrogen table spellbound with their clear liquid that looked like water but evaporated when poured onto the table and was 300 degrees below zero in temperature.
She asked the children to wear eye goggles and thick gloves, as safety precautions.
“Blow on it,” Novotney told the children. They blew on the liquid nitrogen, causing fog to roll from the bowls and flow over the table.
The children inflated balloons and placed them in the bowls. The liquid nitrogen’s sub-freezing temperature caused the balloons to deflate. They reinflated within seconds after they were pulled out and warmed up.
“Here, use this banana to hammer a nail,” Kobrin told one boy. The boy watched the soft fruit get punctured by the nail on a board.
“I wouldn’t build a house with a banana,” Kobrin said. “Let’s put it in the liquid nitrogen.”
The banana froze into a solid lump, so the boy could hammer with it.
The students explained scientific concepts as they went along. Kobrin and Novotney started each group by asking if anyone knew the three states of matter.
“Gas, liquid, solid,” said 7-year-old Robert Chambers. His mentor, SUNY Cortland sophomore special education major Carly Sweet, smiled down at him.
“Wow, good job,” Kobrin said. “Give me a high five. I didn’t know that until I got to college.”
Over at the Play-Doh table, chemistry graduate student Kaori Kubo and senior physics majors Steven Santos and Ben Nachman started their demonstrations by showing how polymers grip.
Santos said he has loved science since eighth grade but realized that many elementary and middle school students might not share his enthusiasm.
“Science is perceived as not cool,” Nachman said. “This is legit science and it’s fun.”
Some of the college students were from the Cornell Public Service Center and some were from Cornell Center for Materials Research. A few plan to become science teachers, said Amy Somchanhmavong, who works for the service center.
Earl said she was thrilled to have the students come over from Ithaca to share their love of science.
“You made it through high school into college, and even if you don’t know yet what you’ll do for a career, at least you can see it,” she told them. “These kids may not see anything like that ahead of them.”
She said she hoped the activities would plant the idea of college in some of the children’s minds.
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