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Secret (Chemical) Agents At Family Science Days

SAN DIEGO--It's too bad James Bond wasn't at Family Science Days--he could have learned how to use science to set a secret rendezvous point at the 2010 Annual Meeting in San Diego.

Using a special kind of paper and a bunch of ordinary household products, children at an activity table developed by the San Diego chapter of the Association for Women in Science (AWIS) wrote messages that would appear and disappear with the spray of a bottle.

While it may never replace texting or Twitter for teenagers, the activity was a hands-on chemistry demonstration that used the fun of science to engage children. But writing secret messages was just one of many activities at Family Science Days, which brought more than 20 exhibitors to the exhibition hall of the San Diego Convention Center.

Other exhibits included opportunities to make a living necklace at the American Society of Plant Biologists table, explore underwater worlds (in an aquarium) with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, play with lasers with Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and power a light bulb while riding an exercise bike at the Center for Sustainable Energy California display.

AAAS provides Family Sciences Days at every Annual Meeting as part of its free community outreach programs to engage the public with science and technology.

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Leila Wilson (left) and her brother, Kai, experiment with secret writing

Leila Wilson (left) and her brother, Kai, experiment with secret writing
In a busy hall at the convention center, children gathered at a table and wrote messages on paper coated in turmeric, a common cooking spice, which is a natural indicator for chemicals that are basic. By dipping a Q-tip in ammonia, which is basic, children could write messages on the paper. But when the message was sprayed with vinegar, a weak acid, the message disappeared.

"What kids like even more," said Carmen Velez, a University of California chemistry graduate student and AWIS volunteer, "is that even if you do nothing, the message will disappear on its own." When the ammonia interacts with carbon dioxide in the air, a weak acid, it creates ammonium carbonate, a salt, which is neutral.

Michelle Juarez, a post doctoral fellow in genetics at the University of California, San Diego, said that these activities are great because it engages children in science across ages, especially with the dramatic changes in colors. She said that for kindergartners, she might just focus on the 'idea that chemicals are special and can do things," while with a high school student, she could talk about the creation of salts and the importance of ions.

Juarez stressed the importance of encouraging young girls and women to get involved in science, and credited AWIS "with helping her find a social network within science" and "showing what people do with a degree in science."

View a Flickr slideshow of photos from the 2010 Family Science Days

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A young girl gets a feel for archaeological fieldwork at Family Science Days.

A young girl gets a feel for archaeological fieldwork at Family Science Days.
During a live stage performance during the Meet-the-Scientists series, children's author Dia Michels and her platypus friend Sugglepuss explored what it means to be a mammal. Michels encouraged the children to participate in the performance by coming up on stage and identifying the defining characteristics of all mammals--milk production, body fur or hair, endothermia (being warm-blooded), and having a vertebrae.

When she said that her platypus friend lived in her house, she asked the audience if they could guess where he sleeps. Knowing that platypuses live in the water, a young audience member replied, "In your pool."

"If I had a pool, he would sleep there, but sadly he has to sleep in my tub," she laughed.

At a table hosted by the Carnegie Mellon School of Computer Science, graduate students Gabriela Marcu, Betty Cheng, and Elizabeth Kemp used a series of demonstrations in an effort to show children the diversity of projects on which computer scientists work. While there was a computer at their booth, there was also a robotic dog named Billinda.

Cheng cited strong misunderstanding about what a computer scientist actually does. While some do work on computer programming, a majority do not, instead working on robotics, internet search engines, cognitive science, economics, or artificial intelligence.

"Once you get some of the nerdy out of computer science, you see how much fun it really is," said Marcu. "The computer is a tool, not the problem that needs to be solved."

Marcu and Cheng used computer science principles to preform a magic trick for the children at their table.

While Marcu turned her back to the table, the children made a five-by-five square composed of blue and yellow sticky notes. After the children placed the colored notes, they were asked to choose one note and switch it to the other color.

Marcu was able to identify the switched sticky note though a special way in which Cheng placed an extra row and column of sticky notes to the square.

When placing the extra row and column, Cheng selected one of the colors, blue, and made sure that all of the rows and columns had an even number of blue Post-it notes--except for one column and one row. The Post-it note that corresponded with that row and column was switched.

Kemp explained that Marcu was using a process similar to computer science concept called check-bitting. Computers are able to use "extra code" that a server adds to information sent over the internet to tell if the information is incomplete, Kemp explained.

Kemp said that she hoped more young girls would consider studying computer science. To fix it, she suggested that computer science programs might do a better job showing young girls that women are also present in computer science fields.

"Most people can't name a computer scientist beyond Bill Gates or Steve Jobs," she said. "But there are so many more, including a lot of women who could serve as role models for young girls."