Giving youngsters an early science education

Posted: August 18, 2014

Under the rapt stares of about 100 children and a statue of Benjamin Franklin, a staff member at the Franklin Institute poured liquid nitrogen into a bucket of water. A cloud mushroomed out over the sides and raced toward the youngsters.

"Wow!" a chorus of surprised and delighted children squealed, reaching out to touch the indoor cloud.

A few hundred more children scurried through the institute's famous heart and new brain exhibits Saturday, when the museum opened to more than 1,400 people free of charge. They were the families of children who had participated in this year's "GSK Science in the Summer" program, which uses hands-on learning to teach science to children entering second through sixth grades.

This summer, about 5,000 children attended free classes at more than 120 public libraries in Philadelphia, Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery Counties. The science program, now in its 28th year, is sponsored by GlaxoSmithKline, the pharmaceutical firm, at a cost of more than $1 million a year nationally. This summer, students in the area learned chemistry, oceanography, physical science/electricity, simple machines, and genetics.

"The driving force of this is to take actual laboratory experiences and make them accessible for children," said George Hight, who teaches in the Upper Darby School District and who taught the genetics course at several libraries in Delaware County this summer. "The kids think: 'Wow, I can do this. I can be a scientist too.' "

In one experiment, Hight's students had to figure out who stole a book by using fingerprinting.

In another, they extracted DNA from fruit. They mixed crushed strawberries with water, salt, and dish detergent and poured the mixture into plastic cups. Then they poured in cold rubbing alcohol, and the DNA rose to the top.

"That stuff sometimes you don't get to do until college or an advanced class in high school," said Angelic Wray, 22, who volunteered at several GSK-sponsored classes and who has a bachelor's degree in forensic science. She minored in chemistry and biology.

This summer, Wray helped students calculate how high to build roller coasters out of pipe insulation to get marbles to roll out the ends.

Aleena Thomas, 7, of Huntingdon Valley, who was in the chemistry unit, said one of her favorite science activities this summer was growing crystals with salt, water, food coloring, and sunlight.

"I learned solid, liquid, and gas," Aleena said at the museum, which administers the summer program.

GlaxoSmithKline also offers the program to students in Pittsburgh, North Carolina, and the Washington area.

Frederic Bertley, senior vice president of science at the Franklin Institute, said he was glad the museum could help young children cultivate a love of science through the summer program.

"If you start in high school," Bertley said, "it's just too late."

610-313-8207 @MichaelleBond

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