Public Science Day Brings Students Face-to-Face with Science

They've never launched a rocket into space, but students visiting the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center in San Diego had a basic understanding of Newton's Second Law of Motion.

Where did they learn that force is equal to mass multiplied by acceleration? For some, it was the last time they went out to eat.

At AAAS Public Science Day at the 2010 AAAS Annual Meeting, more than 500 local elementary school students traveled to the science center in San Diego's Balboa Park for a day jam-packed Thursday of science activities and exploration.

At Public Science Day, San Diego students experimented with the physics of flight.
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Teaming will local science partners including the San Diego Zoo, San Diego Air & Space Museum, and the San Diego Natural History Museum, the Fleet Science Center also featured several hands-on demonstrations--allowing students to get up-close and personal with an armadillo or explore acoustics with a string and cup phone.

Students at a table designed by the San Diego Air & Space Museum learned the basics of ballistic stability and Newton's Second Law of Motion. Using a drinking straw, scissors, tape, and a stencil of rocket wings, the students built a small projectile and launched it towards a target by blowing into the straw.

The students were challenged to hit the target while standing at varying distances from the bulls-eye. While most students couldn't explain why they were doing it, the participants blew harder into the straw as they stepped further from the target.

Francis French, an educator with the Air and Space Museum, said that children are more familiar with the laws of physics than they know.

"Every time they go out to eat and tear off the top of the drinking straw wrapper and shoot it across the table, they are experimenting with very complex physics concepts," said Francis. He said it's not critically important for elementary students to understand specific physics terms or concepts, but rather constantly ask themselves 'What would happen if I did, this?'"

"It's really fun to shoot the rocket," said Zainab Rana Irfan, 9. While she may not be able to recite Newton's Second Law of Motion, the Kimbrough Elementary School student clearly understood its significance. She hit the target from four distances.

Amanda Lincoln, education programs coordinator at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center, said that engaging with local schools is a critical part of her organization's mission.

"Engaging students with the wonders of science is important because many local schools don't have the budget for full-day science programs and experiments," she said, adding that earlier "show-of-hands poll" indicated that most had never been to a museum. "Bringing the kids into the science center gives them a way to participate in the excitement of science."

At an exhibit developed by San Diego Zoo, educator Cindy Spiva-Evans answered questions about the habitat, eating habits, and family life of Cranberry, her Rose-Breasted Cockatoo. The most common question, said Spiva-Evans, is: "Does she talk?"

"Well, yes she does," Spiva-Evans explained to the kids. "But she doesn't speak English or Spanish." After puzzled looks from the students, she said, "Cranberry is fluent in cockatoo."

Spiva-Evans also showed off a Three-Ringed Armadillo, a South-American relative of the much larger Nine-Ringed Armadillo found in the American Southwest. Of the 20 armadillo species found in the world, the Nine-Ringed Armadillo is the only one that lives in the United States. Next to Spiva-Evans, her colleague was showing off a Madagascar Leaf Tailed Gecko-focusing on its ability to camouflage and re-grow limbs.

Spiva-Evans, who calls Cranberry "an animal ambassador to the natural world," said that her department at the zoo is focusing on how scientists and engineers can look to the natural world to develop environmental-friendly technologies.

"Early humans used armadillo and turtle shells as inspiration for battle armor and spider webs for the design of early fishing nets," she said. She added that scientists are currently looking at poison dart frogs to develop a painkiller that mimics morphine, but with fewer side effects.