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Spotlight on science

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Interactive event at UD lets seventh-graders explore their world

Students participate in an electrode demostration

​​​

Students react when they see how doctoral student Devashish Pande can contract the muscles in his arm and, through connected electrodes, cause a visiting student’s fingers to twitch. ​

The middle school students who attended a STEM-outreach event at the University of Delaware recently didn’t all name “science” as their favorite subject or “scientist” as their dream career, but they all found something — often, many things — to attract their enthusiastic attention.

During STEAM Day 2022, held in the University’s Clayton Hall Conference Center, the youngsters explored nearly two dozen interactive exhibits covering topics from DNA to drones to tricks our brains can play on us.

Staffing most of the exhibits and explaining the science behind them were UD graduate students volunteering with Project Brain Light, a student organization whose mission is to foster interest in neuroscience and other STEM fields. In naming the event, the letter A was added to the traditional Science, Technology, Engineering and Math acronym to acknowledge the integration of the arts into problem-solving skills.​

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Students watch a mechanical engineering demonstration

​Mechanical engineering doctoral student Wesley Connor holds a drone as he and mechanical engineering senior Karlens Senatus explain to students how it remains level while moving up and down.​

​“We designed this event to allow the middle school students to experience activities with themes across a variety of scientific disciplines,” said Mary Beth Hall, a neuroscience doctoral student who is president of the Project Brain Light organization. “We try to make sure that these experimental booths or stations they visit show them the kinds of subjects they can explore in science classes and careers.”​

Project Brain Light began in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences’ neuroscience program. Graduate students there wanted to develop outreach efforts to educate the public, and especially K-12 students, about neuroscience, a field of study that is not familiar to many people. The outreach expanded beyond neuroscience and took a variety of forms, including visiting schools and creating educational blogs on scientific topics, as well as the annual STEAM Day event on campus.

Much of Project Brain Light’s work is focused on middle school and on students who are members of groups that are underrepresented in STEM professions. Hall cited research that shows middle school is the age when many youngsters, especially those in underrepresented groups, begin losing interest in pursuing STEM classes at a much higher rate than white males do. She also noted that some 84% of professionals working in STEAM fields are white or Asian men.

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Students participate in microscope demonstration

​David Garbe, outreach director with the Pennsylvania Society for Biomedical Research, a visiting presenter at the event, explains how fruit flies are used in research as students examine a few tiny organisms under microscopes.​

“With the increasing complexity in problems that STEAM fields are trying to answer, this lack of diversity presents a serious problem,” according to Project Brain Light’s website. “Forwarding scientific and STEAM discoveries requires individuals from many different backgrounds, demographics and cultures.”

At this year’s STEAM Day, about 65 students from A.I. du Pont Middle School in Wilmington made the rounds of the exhibits in Clayton Hall. Each stop featured a hands-on activity such as examining fruit flies and water fleas under a microscope while hearing about their life cycles; creating designs with drips of colorful liquids while learning how scientists use pipettes, a basic lab tool; and extracting visible DNA from strawberries using dish soap and other common products.

One popular exhibit, staffed by neuroscience doctoral student Devashish Pande, asked the question: Can you use your muscles to control someone else? By connecting his own muscles to a student’s via electrodes placed on both of their arms, Pande demonstrated how this could be accomplished; contracting his forearm muscle caused the student’s fingers to twitch.

“We want to show kids that we can study how the brain works,” Pande said. “Even if they didn’t know the term ‘neuroscience’ before, they’re interested in this.”​

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Student participate in DNA demostration

​Doctoral student Neha Sindhu helps a middle school student use juice from fresh strawberries, combined with dish soap and a few other common products, to extract visible strands of DNA. ​

At the strawberry DNA table, a visiting student, wearing a map of the brain (acquired at the “What do we know about the brain?” exhibit) atop his head, carefully examined the strands that had been extracted from pulverized berries.

“I’ve heard of DNA. I know a little about it,” he said. “But I never knew you could see it like this.”

To learn more

UD students communicate with the public on a variety of topics by posting articles on the Project Brain Light website, where they also provide information about the group’s partnerships with schools and community organizations.

A few recent informational posts discuss how our body tells time, what to ask about those brain-boosting supplements advertised on TV and how animals use camouflage to blend into their environment.​

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​ Article by Ann Manser; Photos by Kathy F. Atkinson
​Publish July 07, 2022​

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STEAM Day 2022, an interactive event hosted by Project Brain Light, lets seventh-graders explore STEAM subjects through experimentation.
7/8/2022
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