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Elementary students use science to take on supervillains

Penn State junior Angela Gettemy creates “elephant toothpaste” with peroxide, dish soap and yeast, demonstrating the chemical reaction to a group of elementary students on Sunday. About 100 children gathered at  Penn State’s Thomas Building to learn science during a superhero-themed science event.
Penn State junior Angela Gettemy creates “elephant toothpaste” with peroxide, dish soap and yeast, demonstrating the chemical reaction to a group of elementary students on Sunday. About 100 children gathered at Penn State’s Thomas Building to learn science during a superhero-themed science event. CDT photo

Iron Man. The Hulk. Doctor Octopus. All of comic books’ greatest scientists had to start somewhere.

Getting children excited about science, math and the other traditional science, technology, engineering and math disciplines can be tricky. The subjects can be intimidating to a child but become more approachable when wrapped in masks and capes.

On Sunday, Penn State hosted Science Superheroes, a one-day camp for children to teach them about science and conduct small experiments in the context of their favorite comic and film heroes. Rallying around the cry of “Supervillians beware,” the children put their knowledge to the test against a team of faculty bad guys.

“We’re taking the notion that anyone can be a science superhero if they use intellectual skills and put it to the test,” Science U Summer Camps Director Mike Zeman said.

As part of the science outreach effort, the university hosts a science day centered around a different theme each year, Zeman said. Last year was tailored around wizardry and Harry Potter.

“We’re enticing them with role play and critical thinking skills on a level that makes sense to them,” he said. “So they go back to school and aren’t intimidated by math and science. They have some fun applications of them in their psyche so they won’t see them as hurdles.”

About 100 students from kindergarten through fifth grade took part in the event, staff member Anna Mulfinger said. Many came from Centre County school districts but included nearby school districts like Lewistown.

Broken into age groups, the kids were supervised by Penn State students. About 70 volunteered from across STEM disciplines, Zeman said, and happily spent their Sunday afternoon teaching the kids.

Each Penn State student was trained for the day, he said, receiving their clearances and training on education and teaching.

“They’re here to share their passion for science and science education,” he said.

Kokila Shankar, a junior biology major, said it was her third year volunteering. The event has grown in popularity for volunteers, so the spaces fill quickly.

Shankar said she was involved in outreach in high school, and helping with the science camp is a good way to stay involved.

“Anything involving kids is always fun,” she said.

The experiments were simple yet engaging and included some safe but memorable reaction. “Joker’s Silly String” had students mixing yeast and water with peroxide and dish soap to create a volcano of foam. The reaction was also exothermic, creating a small amount of warmth.

“Hobgoblins Science Fair Flub” had them experimenting with different sized effervescent cold tablets and water in a camera film canister, testing what size tablet was needed before the lid was blown off.

The event culminated with a show by the Nittany Chemical Society at the Osmond Laboratory. Faculty played supervillains, and the children had to use their newly acquired knowledge to defeat Count Can’t, the villainous leader played by faculty instructor Todd Pontius.

Even nonscience majors were able to get in on the event as the university’s Superheroes for Kids club volunteered to visit with the children as they were learning. Students dressed as Wolverine, Batman, Wonder Woman and the like added some true superhero flair to the event.

“One of our members has a class with (Zeman),” said president Matt Mullis, who was dressed as Captain America. “He told us about it and we thought it would be a good match.”

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