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Strawberries, Superconductors and Zombies Draw Children to Family Science Days

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Family Science Days will continue Feb. 17, 11 a.m.–4 p.m., at the Marriott Wardman Park in Washington, D.C. | Neil Orman/AAAS

At a booth in an exhibition hall on Saturday, young science enthusiasts extracted DNA from strawberries.

Using mortars, pestles and strainers, the kindergarten through 12th-grade students collected fruit juice in test tubes. American University biologists then instructed the kids to add drops of dish soap and rubbing alcohol to break open cells and draw out genetic material. They watched with raised eyebrows as a white film — made up of microscopic double helices — separated from the red liquid in each tube.

Across the hall, another group of children stood in front of a superconductor — a small white disk made of a chemical compound called yttrium barium copper oxide, which conducts electricity without resistance. They watched as physicists from the Joint Quantum Institute removed the disk from minus 325-degree liquid nitrogen, placing it on a track with a magnetic field it had been trained to recognize.

As the superconductor slid along the track, it remained a few millimeters from the magnets, and the kids placed pieces of paper under it to prove it was levitating. Meanwhile, the scientists explained the real-world uses of superconductivity in MRI machines and particle accelerators.

This year’s AAAS Family Science Days, held at the Marriott Wardman Park in Washington, D.C., features 31 booths run by universities, museums, laboratories, government agencies and nonprofits. AAAS has held the weekend-long Family Science Days each year since 2004 to provide scientists with an opportunity to engage the public during the organization’s Annual Meeting. The free event gives attendees the chance to have conversations with researchers and learn about diverse fields of science.

“What makes Family Science Days unique is that it is incredibly interactive,” says Stacey Baker, who organizes the event for the AAAS Center for Public Engagement with Science and Technology. “When deciding who’s exhibiting, everything is based on what hands-on activity they’re providing for the kids. It’s a place where they can really jump right in and experience the science for themselves.”

Strawberry DNA and a magnetic superconductor track are two of the attractions at Family Science Days. | Adam Cohen/AAAS

In addition to engaging booths, Family Science Days invites “Meet a Scientist” speakers to get on stage and talk about their work. On Saturday, hours before receiving the 2019 AAAS Mani L. Bhaumik Award for Public Engagement with Science, microbiologist Joanna Verran spoke to an audience of dozens of children about zombies, vampires and werewolves.

One can prevent a zombie attack, Verran said, by quarantining the zombies or by hiding in a place that zombies cannot reach. In terms of infectious diseases, these two approaches equate to isolating the pathogen and immunization, respectively.

“The problem with zombies is they infect everybody they come into contact with,” Verran continued. “So, you just get more and more zombies. But the end of humans would be the end of zombies as well. So, diseases don’t do that. You don’t get diseases that cause that sort of morbidity and mortality.”

Sunday’s Meet a Scientist speakers will include Sarah McAnulty, a biologist who will discuss how glowing squid can help us understand symbiosis.

The day-two exhibitors will remain the same, from the Science Storytellers, who give attendees reporter’s notebooks for the opportunity to interview researchers, to the United States Botanic Garden and the North American Sundial Society.