Students get education in STEM at Discovery Day in Concord
By Lou Fancher
There'd be no reason for the Bay Area Science Festival if more kids knew that studying science involved smashing balloons into tiny canisters, screaming as loud as possible, catapulting objects at high velocities, spitting into test tubes and eating handmade ice cream.
Young people asked to talk about STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) often mention textbooks, tests, or teachers droning in front of classrooms.
But at the first-ever Contra Costa County appearance of the annual festival's "Explore! Discover! Create!" hands-on Discovery Day at Cal State East Bay's Concord campus, more than 500 people experienced the radical shift when learning is liberated from the confines of conventionality.
Organized for students ages 5-14 by Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla, in collaboration with BASF, Cal State East Bay, and a host of Bay Area educational institutions, the free, three-hour event opened a window on STEM fields.
Perfect weather and occasional 10-second screaming competitions filled the central outdoor plaza as the day began. Gathered around a noise meter held by Tesoro industrial hygienist Darin Oakes, a cluster of participants registered 115 decibels.
"That's equal to a rock concert," Oakes said. "That's louder than our Martinez refinery, which reaches 105 at most."
A large bowl of water injected with sound rippled as the pitch rose and fell.
"I'm not throwing words when I talk -- it's vibrating air. Sound isn't magic, it's science," he told kids.
Ayla Lane, 14, of Antioch, attends Pittsburg High School and admitted to preferring theater and art.
"I used to not be interested in science, but seeing all the steps, I like it."
Waiting in line to have a laser tool cut her name in a plastic keychain, she said a display showing the magic of Sharpie pens was fascinating.
"They marked on white paper and wetted it. When it spread, you saw all the different colors that actually go into making blue, red, purple and other markers."
At the Bio Rad booth, a half-dozen kids vigorously swished water in their mouths while listening to an explanation of DNA extraction. Spitting the solution into a mixture of soapy detergent and alcohol, they looked for stringy white strands that formed into a miniature DNA "snowball." The "genes in a bottle" activity sent participants home with their DNA sample suspended in a glass amulet keepsake necklace.
"The soap and alcohol makes your DNA stronger," said 11-year old Christopher Tyler Go, holding up his amulet as proof.
The Martinez Junior High School student plans to be an eye doctor "because my mom and dad wear glasses."
He said he likes science because "you get to dissect squids and they have no bones, just an ink sac that's liquid-y. When I think of science, I think of everything in the world."
But he might not have thought of a Dow Chemical scientist blowing up balloons that don't pop and reinflate when removed from a small container of liquid nitrogen -- or of rose petals that crack in the 320-degrees-below-zero boiling cold. When added to a large pot of cream, sugar and vanilla, the result is instant ice cream.
"It's sweet and creamy," said Diablo Vista Middle School sixth-grader Alisa Ioffe.
The 11-year-old budding scientist from Danville already knew that liquid nitrogen shrank and froze anything submerged in it, but the eggshell-cracking sound as the balloons returned to their original form was a surprising discovery.
"I like how science experiments make unexpected things happen. There's always something new," she said.
Bonilla said the most encouraging news about STEM and STEAM (adding "arts" to STEM) is increased integration into education.
"For a long time people thought, if we add a robotics class, then we've accomplished it. But we want all of our students learning to think like you would in the STEM field."
Inquiry is the basic tenet of science and can be used in an English class to teach a sonnet as a designed or engineered structure, she suggested. Connecting science to everyday life is another element driving innovations in teaching that look beyond tests and memorization, Bonilla said.