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Danville School Experiences a "Night at the Museum" Courtesy of Illinois Researchers

November 25, 2013

Chancellor's Public Engagement Fellow Julia Ossler (right) chats with other Illinois students during the Science Night at Danville's South View Middle School.
Chancellor's Public Engagement Fellow Julia Ossler (right) chats with other Illinois students who presented exhibits during the recent Science Night at Danville's South View Middle School.

Growing up in Chicago, Julia Ossler went to museums a lot. "I remember just loving it, and I didn't want to leave." she reminisces. "My brother and sister would hate it because I kept them there all day." While Ossler wanted the kids at Danville's South View Middle School to have those same kinds of opportunities, obviously taking them all to Chicago museums wasn't feasible. So, as part of her Chancellor's Public Engagement project, she arranged a Science Night and took the "museum" to them.

A Danville family engaged in a hands-on activity during the recent Science Night at South View Middle School.
An Illinois student engages a Danville family in a hands-on activity during the Science Night.

Unlike Ossler's brother and sister, the 174 middle schoolers and their families who participated in the November 18th Science Night appeared to love it. So did Ossler and a group of 43 outreach-minded Illinois folks from a wide range of disciplines, including entomology, animal sciences, genomics, IGB, plant sciences, chemistry, and physics, who spent the evening sharing their expertise with visitors.

Excited about the event's numerous hands-on activities, South View principal Sharon Phillips felt they would engage not only the students, but parents as well: "I think that this is a fantastic night for our students and our parents to learn, to come in and look at all the different projects; they are interactive, hands-on projects, and students can ask questions; the parents can participate. We are trying to get our parents in here and this is one way of doing it."

Illinois ornithologist displays one of the stuffed birds she brought for her "Birds of a Feather" display.
Illinois ornithologist Maria Stager displays one of the numerous stuffed birds she brought for her "Birds of a Feather" display.

So did Ossler just wake up one morning and decide to organize a science night for more than 200 people?

Says Ossler: "It's been stewing for a while. I've done outreach as far as I can remember."

For instance, as an undergrad, she helped catalog the inventory in a museum. One of the perks? They allowed her to check out specimens. So when the Chicago-area school her sister taught at was short on resources, she "checked out" some skeletons and sea urchins to supplement the kids' exposure to science. "They loved it," she reports. "Just to see the excitement! They have never seen things like a puffer, and we had a model of one, and that was the entire day. That's all they cared about."

After that initial experience, she discovered that exposing youngsters to science was not only rewarding…but addictive.

"Starting back in undergrad, just getting kids into science and doing hands-on things with them—I wanted to keep doing it."

So she did. While working on her Masters in Florida, like the Pied Piper, she used the incentive of coming to see baby sea turtles to lure kids in the community to their project's outreach events.

A middle-schooler examines a hedge apple in the exhibit about how seeds are scattered.
A middle-schooler examines a hedge apple in the "We Like to Move it, Move It" exhibit about how seeds are scattered throughout the earth.

The recent event in Danville wasn't Ossler's first science night. When budget cuts forced her sister's school to do away with field trips, she "got this crazy idea: 'What if we came to you, and brought science to your school?' When you're in Chicago, with all these museums, to be told you can't go anymore, that's heart breaking."

So last year, she invited not just students, but their whole families, to an interactive science fair where 30+ Illinois grad students from multiple departments shared about their research. In addition, before the event, they held a "Dinner with a Scientist" so underprivileged kids could meet the scientists and ask questions like, "How did you get into this?" Ossler's goal? "Encourage them to see: 'You can do this in your future. You are not limited to what you think you may be.'"

South View's Science Night came about when a social worker friend at the Danville School District, some of whose kids are at high risk for dropping out, mentioned losing their after-school programs because of budget cuts. So, Ossler to the rescue, she once again asked, "What if we came to you?" and took her "Night at the Museum" show on the road.

Ossler hopes the Science Night was just a first step in Illinois becoming a resource for the district. She hopes "to make a long-term program that Danville can really benefit from and build up those kids by having that partnership and have that resource for teacher purposes."

Illinois grad student prepares to illustrate the Bournoulli principal in the physics exhibit, "May the Force Be With You.
Joshua Schiller, Illinois student in Mechanical Science and Engineering, prepares to illustrate the Bernoulli principle in the physics activity, "May the Force Be With You."

Principal Phillips, who also looks forward to a long-term relationship with the university, hopes it was her school's first annual Science Night: "I would just like to say a big thank you to the University of Illinois. We are hoping this is something that will become an annual event. We know exactly how we will do it now…We are just really appreciative to have had it here tonight."

While Ossler's main purpose was to expose South View's kids to science, she believes Illinois grad students, and even some undergrads, reaped a side benefit: "a real-world experience working with high-risk kids, really getting their feet wet while they're in this learning stage as opposed to after they graduate."

Another benefit for Illinois students? Learning to communicate about their field in language even a middle-schooler could understand. She admits that "working with scientists to get them to explain their research and what they do" is a need. "That's the hardest thing to do," she acknowledges.

Ossler's secret agenda in taking science out of the classroom and making it a family affair, is to make it so fun and interesting that kids learn something: "Not teaching them, but covertly letting them learn without telling them they're learning science."

She also shamelessly admits that her ultimate goal is to hook youngsters and reel them into careers in science. After exposing kids to high-quality, hands-on experiences, she has seen a short-term effect: "They all want to be a scientist for the next 24 hours." So her plan is to "keep pushing the idea" via an implicit, subliminal message attached to her events: 'Yes, you want to be scientist; you want to go in this field.'"

Two local youngsters blow through straws in order to observe the Bernoulli principle for themselves.
Two brothers blow through straws trying to "levitate" a ping-pong ball in order to observe the Bernoulli principle for themselves.

Using funding from the Public Engagement Grant, Ossler also held a "Dinner with a Scientist" for 35 Danville students that South View teachers nominated—kids they thought would really benefit from the interactions. They sought out "Kids that are either incredibly interested in going into the science field, or kids that may need a little bit of a nudge and be like, 'Hey, you can do this!'" says Ossler.

Principal Phillips was thrilled with this portion of the event: "Earlier we had 24–25 students who had dinner and had the opportunity to eat with the different scientists from the University of Illinois. What a fantastic experience for our students! We had scientists and students at each table, and it was just a lot of conversation taking place. That was fantastic to see as an administrator in the building."

So why does Ossler do events like Science Night? "I love outreach," she responds. "I love doing it and getting kids excited about science. I love teaching science; it has been a passion of mine."

She also likes to change youngsters' attitude about science: "I love just breaking the barrier of how kids see science, and how it this big scary thing—it's hard, and you are at a lab. I love breaking that barrier and being like, "Look, you can do this too."

Principal Phillips also hopes the event changes how her students see science: "Yes, what I am hoping is that by coming tonight that they will develop a bigger appreciation for science that they maybe did not have before. I think the students are going to see something tonight that is going to be "Wow!" They are going to have that "wow" factor, and they are going to come back to class and look at science with a different set of eyes."

A Danville youngster gets assistance from an Illinois student as he prepares to test the "seed" he designed in front of a box fan to see if can be blown by wind, similar to seeds that use that mode of transportation.
A Danville youngster gets assistance from an Illinois student as he prepares to test the "seed" he designed in front of a box fan to see if can be blown by wind, similar to seeds that use that mode of transportation.

Ossler hopes they look at science as a possible career, and follow in her footsteps (she's working on a Ph.D. herself): "Having them actually see the possibilities and getting them engaged and involved and excited to continue their education is something that is really missing in a lot of the school systems right now. Letting them know they can do this for a career; it's not just a subject in school."

Story and photographs by Elizabeth Innes, Communications Specialist, I-STEM Education Initiative.
More: 6-8 Outreach, Chancellor's Public Engagement Project, South View Middle School, 2013

For additional I-STEM stories about the 2013 Chancellor's Public Engagement fellows and their projects, see Chancellor's Fellow Wolz Hopes to Revolutionize Agriculture Via Woody Perennial Polyculture.

Illinois students in charge of the "We Like to Move It, Move It" shows some of the exhibits they used to explain how "plants fool humans and animals int spreading their seeds all over the planet!"
Illinois plant biology students in charge of the "We Like to Move it, Move It" station display some of types of seeds they brought to explain how plants' seeds are transported planet-wide via wind, humans, and animals."