Along three sides of a trapezoidal table at Lakeview Elementary are four fifth-graders. On the other is New College second-year Anna Blood.
Between them are an orange, a lime and a lemon, all halved, as well as some pennies, nails and a multimeter, a device that measures electric current and voltage.
Blood tosses out questions and answers: What makes it sour? (Acidity). What makes it acidic? (Hydrogen ions in the lemon juice) And the payoff: What happens if you put the penny in one side of the lemon and the nail in the other?
Fifth-grader Parker is up and out of his seat. “They’re going to make electricity and it’s going to power the meter!” he says. “Science!”
Actually, it’s Science Fair Sidekicks, a pilot program developed by the Florida House Institute, a local nonprofit that advocates for “green” technologies. The program is staffed by volunteer New College students, recruited by second-year Katrina Carlin, who is an intern at Florida House.
“Our goal with this program is to get in there and help the kids really enjoy doing science and enjoy their science fair projects, instead of it being just another tedious school assignment they have to do,” she said. “We want to expose them to the fun of science and the curiosity, and give them the resources they might not be able to access at home.”
Lakeview teacher Khizran Usman developed the labs and lessons last summer. The plan is to take the creative science experiments into local schools and guide small groups of kids through the scientific method.
The students formulate a question and hypothesis, set up and conduct multiple trials, gather, plot and analyze the data, and reach conclusions.
The students get to use the work for the school’s science fair requirement. Their teacher, Samantha Ivey, says the assistance on the project can be vital.
“Some kids go home and get a significant amount of parental support on their science fair projects. And some kids don’t, and they don’t get much out of the experience,” she said. “This gives all the kids a boost, by being able to work in small groups.”
So on this recent morning, Blood and three first-year New College students (plus Cori Washington, Florida House’s project developer) are at stations scattered across the classroom.
At one table, Natali Shaffer has beakers of water and ice, and is preparing to add salt, then to start measuring the water temperature at one-minute intervals.
At another, Erika Johnson has sheets of construction paper in five colors. Her team will take the paper outside, tape the sheets down and let them soak up the sun for five minutes, then read their temperature with a thermal gun.
And Liliana Benitez’s group is clustered around a table, wearing sunglasses. They have three light bulbs – one incandescent, one CFL and one LED – shining bright inside safety cages. The kids are reading the bulbs’ temperatures with infrared thermometers.
Yosenia aims her thermometer at the top of the LED bulb. “I got 131,” she tells her group, reading the degrees in Celsius. Meanwhile, Aiden records a 185 off the CFL bulb, and Alex gets 205 from the incandescent.
The results hold up over trials, and the kids come away with the conclusion that the incandescent bulb produces the most heat, and likely uses the most energy.
At the light absorption lab, all three kids correctly predicted the black paper would heat up the most, and at the water temperature station, Vanessa notes that the salt did make the water temperature colder, by making the ice melt faster.
And back at the fruit batteries, an excited Parker says the pH of the fruit did not affect the amount of electricity produced. Report completed, he and his classmates moved on to trying other battery designs.
Their New College student leader was jubilant. “It was great!” second-year New College student Anna Blood said. “One of the kids asked me if this is what I do, and I said ‘Yes, I have chemistry lab every week.’ I could see the light bulb go off over his head – you actually do use this – this is real!”
Carlin said that’s what resonates with the kids. “It’s the same kind of procedural stuff we’re going through every day when we do our labs,” she said.
“I tell the kids, ‘I had to write out my methods for my lab report last night,’ so they don’t feel like they’re doing things they’ll never use again. It’s definitely relevant to their lives, especially if they go into one of the natural science fields. And honestly, the scientific method is relevant to all of the fields.”
Meanwhile, the students and teachers gave the Novo Collegians high marks.
“They were fantastic,” said teacher Ali Binswanger, whose class they visited the previous day. “They were great leaders. They knew exactly what to do. They were time efficient, and the kids had a blast.”
Fifth-grader Daniela worked with Carlin earlier in the week. “She was really friendly and nice and explained what to do,” Daniela said. “She was really passionate about science.”
That’s just what Carlin and her fellow students want to hear, because they can see themselves in the fifth-graders, and they know inspiration can make a difference.
“If I had not had my sophomore year chemistry teacher, I probably would not love science as much as I do now,” she said. “I want them to be exposed to someone who loves it as much as I do, because they deserve it.”