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MSU Science Festival draws community crowd

April 20, 2016
Chemistry professor James H. Geiger holds a flame while wheat dust is thrown into the fire during Keep Calm: It's Only An Explosion which is a chemistry demonstration going on as a part of the MSU Science Festival on April 14, 2016 in the Chemistry Building.  Geiger says he likes demonstrating chemistry because he wants to spark interest for both adults and children to learn more about chemistry.
Chemistry professor James H. Geiger holds a flame while wheat dust is thrown into the fire during Keep Calm: It's Only An Explosion which is a chemistry demonstration going on as a part of the MSU Science Festival on April 14, 2016 in the Chemistry Building. Geiger says he likes demonstrating chemistry because he wants to spark interest for both adults and children to learn more about chemistry. —
Photo by Emily Elconin | and Emily Elconin The State News

There’s nothing like the sight of a crowd getting excited about something they love, whether that’s cheers for Bryn Forbes making a 3-pointer or screams filling Spartan Stadium after a Connor Cook touchdown pass. 

But what about the “ooh's” and “ahh's” of children as they witness a chemical reaction take place?

Because that’s a thing, too.

Since 2013, MSU has been hosting the MSU Science Festival. This year, the festival began April 12 and will run through April 24. The festival, inspired by one co-creator’s trip to the University of Cambridge's festival, is the opportunity to utilize campus as a way to offer the community access to learning about science.

“We’ve had such a wonderful response from both presenters who are really eager to share their work, research and cutting edge material that’s going on in their fields with the general public and the response that we’ve gotten from attendees has just been wonderful,” Renee Leone, coordinator and co-founder of the MSU Science Festival, said. “It really seems to be fulfilling an otherwise unmet need at the moment, and we’re really thrilled to be able to do that.”

With thousands of visitors throughout previous years attending the festival, families got to experience events of all varieties.

“You learn everything from learning how an astronaut trains for their journey into space to the secrets of black holes and tropical forests, all from researchers who are doing the work,” Leone said. “I just like to imagine that after the festival that people go home and they look something up, or they try something they saw at the festival, or together they get excited to find out more information about a night star that they see in the backyard in the sky, or some kind of critter that they come across, and all those questions start flowing about what is it and why is that here."

This year the fair partnered with other science programs in different cities, such as Detroit and Grand Rapids.

Keep Calm: It’s Only an Explosion

On April 14, families gathered in a lecture hall in the Chemistry Building to watch a series of explosions. Chemistry professors James Geiger and Babak Borhan demonstrated a number of experiments that result in combustion or a flame.

“It’s a way to attract students, especially the younger kids, towards science,” Borhan said. "When you do a demonstration which have colors, flashes, explosions and lights, they get interested in science, and of course science isn’t just about that. We want to build interest in them early on so they come ask questions and build more interest.”

The explosions were only the sparks igniting the families’ and the children’s interest for the week to come.

Tricking Your Brain: Memory and Attention Illusions

April 16 was when the festival really kicked off. With nearly 20 featured events on Saturday alone, campus was filled with eager adults and curious children.

Michelle Stepan and Kelly Stec, both graduate students, hosted Tricking Your Brain: Memory and Attention Illusions. The crowd watched demonstrations and was given tests meant to show how the brain might distort things and why.

Stepan and Stec put on the presentation as part of their graduate research and said they enjoyed the crowd’s reactions.

“It’s nice because research is not always full of laughter, so it’s good to do presentations that are really fun for everybody,” Stec said.

The presentation included some friendly generational competition, when the kids competed against the adults in various brain tests.

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“I was very impressed with the way that they involved and made us feel like it was all of us, not just us and them, and that the people could laugh and have fun doing it and it wasn’t like a classroom setting where we had to be rigid,” Bruce Barker, a local entrepreneur and Lansing resident, said. “We could make noise and be silly and have fun. Everyone is encouraged to be partners with the scientists and that made me and my family want to come.”

Barker said he came to the event out of both interest and nostalgia. His parents studied social sciences and the modern take on what his parents did in previous decades intrigued him, but the curiosity of learning about science was a factor as well.

“A science fair should be given the same opportunity, same enthusiasm, the same energy like when you want to see a concert or a Spartan basketball game, because science is in everything,” Barker said. “So people, whether you like science or not, you’re going to love it because everyone is having such a fun time and making this not only educational, but entertaining.”

Stec and Stepan said they believe the community support and exposing children to science at a young age is beneficial to a child’s future.

“I’ve been at MSU for five years now, and every year I just see a complete pouring in of community support and people seem to really enjoy the festival no matter their demographic, which is really cool because that means we’re making science accessible,” Stec said.

Stec also said she approves of the equality of female and male presenters in the festival and the benefit it might have on young women.

“I think it’s really important and affirming to have the amount of female presenters that I’ve seen at this festival overall, because it’s really encouraging to young women who are thinking about going into STEM fields," she said.

Edible Ice Cream Aquifers: What Can You Learn About Groundwater?

The weather on April 17 was a perfect way to tie in ice cream, kids and education.

The event taught people about the treatment of groundwater, how to protect it and how scientists at MSU are keeping the Red Cedar River safe.

“So, of course, who doesn’t love to eat junk food?" Ruth Kline-Robach, outreach specialist in the MSU Institute of Water Research, said. “This is a way to translate science into something that’s fun for younger kids, but also adults.”

Using the unique technique, Kline-Robach was able to reach the audience and get her message out in a way they understood.

“We’re talking about the Red Cedar River and the things that we’re doing on campus to protect it," she said. "Then we have the participants make their own groundwater aquifer and they make it with gummy bears, soda and ice cream with some sprinkles on top. They can drill their well using a straw and they pour fruit punch on top to represent potential contaminants and then we talk about how we can protect groundwater.”

Events like is what made Keith Wasilenski, an MSU alumnus, and his family come to the festival.

“This whole Science Festival is geared towards kids — It’s hands on, it’s interactive," Wasilenski said. "Even the presentations, you want to reach all levels of kids. For instance, I have an 11 year old and 7 year old, and for them to get something from that, they got to present in ways in they can understand that, because visually I can see it, but my older (child) can understand what process is going on as well, and they do that all throughout the events. They make it where adults are interested as well as a kindergartener.”

Wasilenski said he was impressed with the way MSU students were involved with the festival.

“I know It’s all volunteer drive," he said. "The students who are usually running the exhibits are in their field and their profession, so they’re very knowledgeable and they want to interact with and teach the kids. Not only does this give them that one-one-one hands on experience, but it also gives them real life application of what they’re trying to do and to explain it to somebody else, and that only reinforces with their knowledge is.”

Laura Young, a research associate at the MSU Institute of Water Research and an MSU alumna, said she has seen some former MSU students back for the festival.

"I’ve actually seen my old RA,” Young said.

Touching base with people on an important issue and getting people of all ages to understand the presentations was Kline-Robach's overall mission.

“That’s the goal," Kline-Robach said. "We really want to hook kids and get them excited and hopefully some young scientists signing up here at MSU.”

Robotic Fish

As the weekend came to a close, the Robotic Fish display was up and running for the attendees to interact with.

Xiaobo Tan, a foundation professor, displayed one of his robotic fish in the MSU Museum to teach people of all ages some of the components of engineering that went into the project.

“The most important thing is it’s fun," Tan said. "It’s not just about deriving equations, it’s about combining fundamental mathematics with science and engineering with practical applications. That’s the important message we want to get through but, of course, we don’t expect that message to be precisely taken by a young kid, so that’s why we have the demo because they’ve seen movies and shows with robots.

Tan said displaying the fish will hopefully let kids draw connections between the fish to the high-tech robotics they see on screens, but it’s OK if they don’t.

“Maybe some of them will take it as a fun toy, and that’s OK, but different ages will have different understandings,” Tan said.

Kyoungah Park, a mother born and raised in Korea, visited the event with her son said she was impressed with the range of education and how it was being presented to young children.

“It’s much different and a little more exciting for kids," Park said. "Naturally they can’t pick up a scientific environment. In Korea, it’s more like academy for them so it’s difficult, but these events, you see that science is life and they can play and learn.”

Park said she was recommended the event by someone who took their children to the previous festival.

“My friend whose son is in (her son's) program told us to come," she said. "I was very satisfied with all the events. I’m telling his kindergarten classmates, I do volunteer work there, parents tomorrow.”


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