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Ryan Herchig works with students at Dr. John Long Middle School.

USF professor teaches middle school class about science

TAMPA, Fla. -- At 9:15 a.m. on Friday, April 13, the gifted science class from Dr. John Long Middle School in Pasco County was taken on a guided tour of the new Interdisciplinary Sciences building on the University of South Florida campus. This tour included science-related lectures and demonstrations, as well as a pizza lunch afterward.

The class is part of an ongoing outreach program spearheaded by Inna Ponomareva, assistant professor of physics at USF and member of the department’s Computational Nanoscience Group. Her goal, she said, is not to persuade the students to choose a career in science, but rather educate them on what being a professional scientist is all about.

“If you talk to young students about a future career, most of them will say, ‘You know what, I want to be a policeman’ or ‘I want to be a doctor’ or ‘I want to be an astronaut’ or ‘A movie star’, and they never say ‘I want to be a scientist’ or ‘I want to be an engineer’… How come nobody wants to be a scientist?” Ponomareva said.

“And then I thought, you know, maybe they don’t know what it is. Younger kids may not necessarily know what it is that scientists do. So I thought, ‘What if we simply showed them what scientists do?’ And the idea is very basic because by bringing them here, we can show them what scientists do on a daily basis. They will have a better idea about scientists, as much as they do about doctors, construction workers and other professions.”

Ponomareva has been doing this outreach program since 2010. She, along with research assistant professor Sergey Lisenkov and students from the Computational Nanoscience Group, first visited Dr. John Long Middle School to teach the students in their own classroom about basic -- but nonetheless real -- concepts of nanoscience. Part of the visit included a brainstorming discussion in which the students posited the best materials to use in constructing a space elevator.

She also took the students on a tour of the physics laboratories in the department’s former building, during the time when the Interdisciplinary Sciences building was still under construction. With lectures and demonstrations aplenty, the children learned much. However, the physics professors doing the demonstrations learned, too.

“[The students] walked into this stadium seating classroom in a college environment,” said Darcy Cleek, who teaches gifted science students at the middle school. “[The professor] looked around at these little bitty sixth-, seventh-graders and eighth-graders and they were rather short… So you obviously knew he was quite intimidated by the size of these students and thinking that he was not going to be able to meet their needs or give them something that would be of benefit, that it would be well above their heads.

“So he threw out a question: ‘Well, do you know what nano scale is?’ And all of their hands went up, and he asked one of the students and [the student] responded with the correct answer, and he was quite shocked… ‘Oh my gosh, you do know!’ It ended up being a very positive experience.”

Cleek said the outreach program gave her students a level of understanding far beyond her expectations.

“When we first shared the opportunity with them, the students then started doing research on their own,” she said.

Though Ponomareva and Cleek both agree this program would be beneficial to a wider range of students, it currently only has the capacity to educate one class at a time. The program is currently funded and executed by the USF Department of Physics and the concerted volunteerism of schoolteachers and physics department faculty. However, more funding and effort is necessary to take on a larger overall group.

Ponomareva is confident other faculty members of the different science departments at USF would be just as willing to aid the program with their time and effort, allowing the students to learn the whole spectrum of the sciences: biology and chemistry, for example, in addition to physics.

More information about the outreach program can be found at the Computational Nanoscience Group’s website.

The Computational Nanoscience Group would like to acknowledge the following people for their contributions to the program: Philip Bergeron, Douglas Gobeille, Ryan Herchig, Denis Karaiskaj, Myung Kim, Garrett Matthews, Kevin McCash, Casey Miller, Pritish Mukherjee, Martin Muschol, Sagar Pandit, Sarath Witanachchi, Lilia Woods and Qingteng Zhang.


Filed under:Arts and Sciences Physics    
Author: William Green