By Megan Prescott, Microbiology graduate student
Our first outreach event ended with a man in jail---but don’t worry, it’s not as scandalous as it sounds. We worked with Ms. Jackson at Clarke Central High School to hold the first annual "Chemistry Mystery Event" where students and their parents worked together to solve the fictional murder of Billy The Bus Driver.
As one of the events coordinators for WiSci, I’ve helped organize a lot of events. This one was especially rewarding for me, not only because we got to work within the Athens community, but also because I was able to bring an event from idea to reality. In order to understand the process, we have to go back a year to WiSci’s early days.
When putting together our first grant application to the UGA Parents & Families Association, we took inspiration from the University of Florida’s WISE (Women in Science and Engineering) group. In addition to a professional development symposium, we decided to propose a spring break science course for elementary school aged girls. I loved the idea of exposing girls to science and scientific female role models at an early age and volunteered to write up that part of the grant application. Our grant was funded, but the event was to be shelved until the spring semester, wanting to focus on the career symposium for the fall.
Spring semester came and when we needed a point person for the event, I immediately volunteered, this was my baby after all. What I didn’t consider, however, is how hard it is to actually execute an event with elementary school children, especially if we wanted the event held at the university. It involves permission slips, buses, venues, background checks, chaperones, and a million other tiny details that also would have to be organized in the two months before spring break. On a member’s advice, we conceded to something small for WiSci’s first venture into the outreach world. We could volunteer at the elementary school--but there were already 5 different organizations doing that. I wanted our event to be our own. For some reason high school always seemed out of the question. To me it seemed like the students would already know what career they wanted to pursue or would be “too cool” for science, and wouldn’t want to do extracurricular experiments. Other people must have felt the same way because Clarke Central High School lay unclaimed by any UGA science organization.
Although it initially seemed daunting, it started to seem like a perfect fit: high schools already have after-school infrastructures in place, they don’t need permission slips, and if we could reach the high school we could really start something new for the organization and for UGA. I cold-emailed the science department head at Clarke-Central, who forwarded my email, and I got a response an hour later from Ms. Jackson. She already had an event in mind—students and their parents or guardians would work together and use chemistry-based experiments to analyze clues from a fictional crime scene to identify the killer out of the possible suspects in a murder mystery. It was the perfect situation to get our outreach endeavors off the ground. I assembled a team, and we helped Ms. Jackson with anything and everything she needed, from food, to prizes, to career packets for the students, and of course, helping run the experiments the day of the event.
That brings us back to present day. The event went as smoothly as you could expect a first time event to go. But I don’t want to describe what we did at the event as much as I want to tell you how it made me feel: and for that, all I can say is "goosebumps." These students not only enjoy science enough to come to their high school on the weekend to do experiments, but their parents support and encourage them enough to do it with them. I did not see one student-parent pair argue over the best way to approach an experiment or who should do what part. Instead I heard "you got this!" from loving parents to their child stuck on a problem, and "we’re going to win" from excited students solving another clue. It hit me then that we don’t do outreach to win money from a grant or pump up our CVs, but we do it to foster the love of science in the next generation and to bridge the gap with the ones before. The event may have drastically changed from our initial vision in the grant application from a year ago, but the end goal was exactly what I envisioned: young students enjoyed doing science and WiSci helped them get there---Oh, and Peter was the murderer.
Do you have any tips or ideas for science outreach events with students? Let us know in the comments below!