Summer Program Offers Hands-on Science Fun for D.C. Area Students

Teacher Sherita Williams shared insights about electricity as well as the scientific process during a recent GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) Science in the Summer class, administered by AAAS. | AAAS/Carla Schaffer

First, Williams asked a group of second- and third-graders to wave colored straws over bits of red tissue paper. Next, she asked the children to try and generate static electricity by rubbing the straws onto their clothing in order to move electrons from one material to another. On the first try, only one child was able to pick up a piece of paper with his charged straw.

Williams, a science teacher at the John Philip Sousa Middle School, encouraged the students to keep trying, cheering on each new attempt. "Sometimes scientists do experiments, and sometimes those experiments don't work the first time," she explained. "Sometimes they don't work the second time. Today is humid, so it will be harder for you to make static electricity. Don't give up."

By the end of the class, all of Williams' students had completed successful experiments with static electricity. In the process, they learned about the structure of atoms, including protons, neutrons and electrons.

The session was part of a GSK-sponsored effort to encourage elementary students to "grow into science" through fun, hands-on activities. In 2013, AAAS coordinated Science in the Summer classes to serve 1,000 children at 30 locations across the greater Metropolitan Washington, D.C. area, including Northern Virginia, and at multiple Maryland sites, encompassing the city of Baltimore as well as Anne Arundel, Baltimore, and Talbot counties. Classes for 2nd to 3rd graders and for 4th to 6th graders were planned to cover either the wonders of chemistry or the physics of electricity.

At the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, Williams gathered students around a Van de Graaff generator, so-named for physicist Robert J. Van de Graaff, who in 1929 devised a machine that transfers an electric charge from a moving belt to a terminal point on a hollow metal globe. One boy, standing on a rubber mat and stool for safety, felt his hair stand on end as a result of electrostatic energy when he touched the generator. Williams put a small piece of tissue paper on his head to help other students observe the phenomenon while she explained how energy was being produced by the movement of electrons.

Students may be more likely to remember basic science principles that they learn through hands-on activities, said Betty Calinger, AAAS Project Director. "The class activities help to reinforce the science lessons that children are learning in school," she said. "They also make scientific information tangible and vivid for children, and they demonstrate the idea that learning science can be fun."