By Adriana Aumen, College of Arts and Sciences
PULLMAN, Wash. – After teaching chemistry to Washington State University students for 30 years, Jeanne McHale wondered how to explain solar energy conversion to a bunch of squirmy teens and tweens in a weeklong summer camp.
“I had to consider what words I could use to make it understandable without dumbing it down to the point of nonsense,” she said.
Six days later, amid the whir of a fan, tick of a clock and hum of a buzzer – all powered by the solar panels her young pupils created – McHale smiled with satisfaction and amazement.
“It just blew me away how smart they were,” she said. “They surprised me with excellent questions – questions that get at the heart of the problems that people in my field are struggling with.
“And,” she laughed, “they really liked to get their hands into it.”
Creativity and innovation
Twenty-two youngsters from across Washington and elsewhere donned goggles, gloves and lab coats and learned – hands-on – how to turn sunlight into electricity during two Cougar Quest (http://www.cougarquest. wsu.edu/What_is_Cougar_ Quest.asp) workshops McHale led on the WSU Pullman campus.
Dozens of other powerfully creative educational outreach efforts were led by scores of WSU faculty, staff and graduate students in several WSU-sponsored summer youth programs.
Among the array of topics explored in arts and sciences were aboriginal painting and culture, applications of game theory, human anatomy and health, the pursuit of psychology and making reeds for woodwinds.
Outreach offers outsized benefits
Arts for Children’s Enrichment (ACE) (http://libarts.wsu.edu/ace/), Math and Science CAMP and Cougar String Camp and Keyboard Exploration (http://libarts.wsu.edu/music/camp/) are just a few of the programs that extend university research, knowledge and innovation into schools across the state. And while they help prepare young learners for success in college and careers, they also enrich the educators’ experiences, presenting new challenges and new avenues to explore, create and discover.
For Mary Trotter, clinical associate professor of music, being part of the youth outreach Las Memorias Performance Project (http://performance.wsu.edu/concept/) has provided fresh perspectives on a familiar art form while coordinating the ACE program has taught her about other forms too.
“I come from a theater background,” she said. “Most of the ACE kits and workshops we design come from more of a fine arts influence or other specialty. It’s been great to see how accessible these ‘other’ arts can be when presented in the appropriate format.
“I also love collaborating,” she said. “Any time I can work with other artists to create, I jump at the opportunity. Through the ACE program I have been able to collaborate with other faculty here on campus in a way I wouldn’t have expected.”
She believes part of the draw for WSU faculty to engage in youth outreach is the opportunity to work with another age group.
“It’s a change from the college setting and it provides a venue to try something new and express their work a bit differently than they might in a college course.”
Keeping it real
In her youth workshops, McHale capitalized on the chance to explore dyes extracted from insects and berries and other materials that were new to her solar energy research. Data collected from the youngsters’ experiments will actually be used to further inform her work, she said.
“It’s important to get students not just to sit in a classroom and absorb information and then spit it back out on a test, but to do things and to learn things by using their hands,” she said.
Raymond Lee, associate professor in the School of Biological Sciences (http://sbs.wsu.edu/), agrees. He did more than talk about scientific discovery to young participants in the Honors College Summer of Excellence (http://honors.wsu.edu/summerprograms/SummerExcellence/). He brought deep-sea hydrothermal vent research directly to them in real time.
“A novel thing we did was to Skype with an educator on a research cruise to deep sea vents off the coast of British Columbia,” he said. “The students were able to ask him questions and get the sense of a real link to scientific discovery. It illustrated how the digital age continues to advance how we conduct scholarly inquiry.”
Like McHale, Lee was impressed by his young students and their questions.
“They seemed engaged, intellectually curious and serious,” he said. “I think the idea of a summer camp is an excellent platform to change the perspective of these students so that they get a snapshot into university and the future.”
Reaching out with reason
McHale’s first foray into youth outreach left her exhausted but expanded, she said: “It’s almost like younger people are natural scientists because they’re naturally curious. It’s pretty easy to find and light that spark.”
She recommends faculty engage in youth outreach for many important reasons.
“Outreach is something we should all be doing,” she said, “although it’s not easy; it’s a lot of work and it doesn’t necessarily pay. While it certainly can help us secure grants to continue our other work, we do it because we need future scientists and future thinkers to solve huge problems in our world.