NIEHS volunteers return to summer science camp in Durham
By Eddy Ball
The innovative Science and Everyday Experiences (SEE) summer camp held its seventh annual session June 30 at the Durham (N.C.) Alumnae Delta House, with scientific leadership by volunteers from NIEHS (see text box). The theme for this year’s camp, which attracted more than 40 children from grades four through nine, was “African-American Contributions to Science.”
Coordinated by Durham SEE chair Sharon Beard, an NIEHS program manager, this year’s camp, like its predecessors, developed its theme through hands-on experiments that illustrated the accomplishments of African-American scientists Charles Drew, M.D., Lewis Latimer, and Benjamin Bradley as they related to everyday experiences. “For the first time at the SEE summer science camp, all the people who planned and developed the activities were scientists and staff from NIEHS,” Beard noted with pride.
According to Beard, focusing on African-American scientists offered students the added motivation of learning about role models as they learned about science. “They needed to see the different types of people who’ve been an important part of scientific progress, to see what they’d done and how they did it,” she said.
During the half-day camp, students rotated through three instructional modules, as their parents met with Beard and co-presenter Joan Packenham, Ph.D., director of the NIEHS Office of Human Research Compliance. Packenham and Beard explored resources available to parents and home-based strategies for helping develop their children’s interest in careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
The steam engine — a stolen invention
Led by NIEHS biologist Agnes Janoshazi, Ph.D., the steam engine module included a brief overview and history of the life of a slave, Benjamin Bradley, who never received the patent for the invention because it was given to his owner. Janoshazi and her team explained the function and design of the steam engine and demonstrated how to build one.
Students then gathered around a wading pool in the classroom to race their own steamboats with flags and mirrors on the top. Constructed on an aluminum pan platform and powered by water-filled copper coils heated by burning alcohol that produced the steam to propel them, the boats sped around the pool, much to the obvious delight of their young builders.
Let there be light — but first, there needs to be a filament
Every school child knows that Thomas Edison is acknowledged as the father of electric lighting, and some may recall that finding the right material was a major obstacle to everyday use of the light bulb. But few realize that it took the insight of a competitor’s draftsman, the son of a freed slave, and, later, the only African-American member of the Edison Pioneers, Lewis Latimer, to make it practical for widespread use.
Designed and led by NIEHS staff scientist Elena Braithwaite, Ph.D., the light bulb experiment used a battery, alligator clips, a pie pan, thin metal wire, and a mason jar to demonstrate how light bulbs work. Students tried different configurations of the thin wire — wires made from different types of metal and with different thicknesses — and recorded how long and how brightly each version of the filament glowed.
Blood banks — the gift of life
Moving into the 20th century, NIEHS postdoctoral fellow Danielle Watt, Ph.D., led students in a module focusing on Drew. Drew built on his research to develop the blood bank system for soldiers fighting in World War II, establishing protocols for safely and effectively collecting, testing, storing, and transporting large quantities of blood plasma for distribution in Great Britain. Ironically, his death from an automobile accident in 1950 might have been prevented if he had had access to his own invention at the Burlington, N.C. hospital where he was treated.
In the experiment, Watt led students in an edible demonstration of the components of blood using red hot candy, representing red blood cells; marshmallows, standing in for white blood cells; coconut, to signify platelets; and corn syrup, as plasma. The students also learned the differences in clumping and coagulation of noncompatible blood types, using household materials that included vinegar, floor polish, water, and food coloring.
The SEE experience — the teachers’ perspective
Several veterans of SEE and other outreach programs spoke about the success of the summer camp.
- Agnes Janoshazi, who has almost 20 years of experience teaching popular science in Europe, said she was delighted when Packenham approached her this April about being a part of the SEE teaching staff. “I quite enthusiastically support the SEE camp program, because I think it is a beautifully organized program,” she wrote, “and I feel lucky to have been a part of it this summer.” Also working on the steamboat module team were Reke Janoshazi; Delta volunteer Lillian Horne, M.D., and the husband of NIEHS biologist Mercedes Arana, Ph.D., chemist Frank Boellman, Ph.D.
- SEE veteran Braithwaite praised fellow teachers and colleagues Keith Holloway; postdoctoral fellow Georgette Charles, Ph.D.; Mwenda Kudumu; Antonio Gatling; and Packenham. Braithwaite said the light bulb team enjoyed the energy and enthusiasm of the students. “We were also inspired by the highly intelligent students that attended the camp. They knew several aspects of African-American history and were very excited to expand their knowledge,” she said. “We can’t wait to see what great things are in store for these students.”
- Now in her fourth year at the camp, Watt said she was gratified by the way students changed their attitudes toward science when they saw its everyday applications in their lives. “I love seeing the students getting excited about science, especially when they say that they did not like science. When they learned about blood types, many were eager to ask their parents about their blood type and share the information they learned.”
- One of Watt’s partners in the blood experiments, along with Raven Herndon, was Arana, who has been a part of several outreach activities, including the Citizen Schools program and the NIH Summer Internship Program. “The children were attentive and eager to participate,” Arana observed. “Participants were very involved during the hands-on activities in asking and answering questions. They learned and we learned — a reciprocal exchange and learning experience for all.”