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SACNAS Advances Latina/o Students in Science Via an Outreach for Local Youngsters—Ciencias!

A local visitor to Ciencias! plays with slime at the States of Matter station.

March 22, 2018

The 20 or so kids who showed up at the Champaign Public Library for Ciencias! on Saturday, March 17th, were exposed to more than just hands-on science activities. Sponsored by the Illinois chapter of SACNAS (the Society for Advancing Chicanos/Hispanics & Native Americans in Science), the outreach also gave young participants the chance to hear the activities in not just English, but Spanish, which, for a number, was their native language. Plus, even more importantly, presenting the activities were Latino/Latina students, which afforded many of the youngsters the chance to see students of color—people who looked like them—doing science.

At Ciencias! kids could rotate among four different stations, which gave them a chance to try their hand at a variety of activities: earthworms, bee honeycomb structures, the states of matter, and solar energy. Regarding the range of sciences addressed, SACNAS’ Outreach Coordinator, Alonso Favela, explains why the variety:

SACNAS Outreach Coordinator Alonso Favela introduces local youngsters to earthworms at Ciencias!

“I really like showing the kids a breadth of demos,” he admits. “I really like exposing the library kids to as many things as possible, and then seeing whatever they like the most, and inspiring them.” So for the Ciencias! outreach events, which occur once in the spring and again in the fall, Favela tries to inspire the kids in different areas of science. Topics they've addressed in the past include organismal biology, entomology, biology, and chemical trials where they’re doing ink tests, to name a few; for the March 2018 edition, the kids learned about biology and entomology (what Favela terms “showing them insects and critters”), chemistry, and even some engineering.

Young visitors get acquainted with some earthworms during Ciencias!

Favela’s outreach philosophy stems from doing similar events when he was young: “As a kid, when I would go to outreach events, I always really liked the biology stuff, and I had friends that would really like the engineering or chemistry stuff. And I just want to make sure that everybody sort of has the thing that interests them.”  

So one station included demos with earthworms, intended to teach the kids what worms do, where they live, and why they matter, including how efficiently they compost. According to the worksheet, the goal was to “Get them to love worms!” And at the station, the more intrepid youngsters even got to hold some.

A young visitor works on a bee honeycomb hands-on activity at Ciencias!

Another station was about bee honeycomb structures.

“Bees somehow figured out the most efficient shape to structure their honeycombs,” Favela boasts.

So SACNAS members took the kids through how bees figured it out, then kids got to make their own "honeycombs."

A young visitor plays with slime at the States of Matter station at Ciencias!

Another station exposed young visitors to the different states of matter—solid, liquid, and gas. The goal was to show kids the different forms and help them categorize them.

But Favela admits, “It’s mostly an excuse to mix slime and have them play with it!”

“Hands-on always helps!” agrees Elena Montoto, SACNAS president, on hand for the event.

SACNAS members Dalia Portillo and Brenda Andrade teach young visitors about solar energy at Ciencias!

The final station exposed kids to a little electrical/ environmental engineering. The activity focused on solar energy, using solar panels and wiring to connect them, and the young participants got to read a meter to determine how much energy a given solar panel was producing. (The solar energy was provided by light bulbs.)

SACNAS member Edzna Garcia interacts with a young visitor at the "States of Matter" station.

So why would the half dozen or so SACNAS members, mostly PhD students involved with their own important research and completing their degrees, take time out of their busy schedules to do outreach? Favela reports that, for him, it’s because of the looks on the kids’ faces.

“I guess just because I like teaching people about science," he acknowledges. "I like it when someone sees something, and they learn something, and their face lights up, and they understand what’s going on, and they’re sort of inspired. Because that’s what I like about science, and I want other people to get that same response out of it.”

Montoto, a 4th-year materials chemistry PhD student, likes to give kids today opportunities she didn’t have as a child.

“Personally, I didn’t have these opportunities growing up,” she admits. “I don’t think I ever went to a scientific demonstration of any sort when I was young. So to be able to have all of these demonstrations, play with slime—’Look! See how it stretches and moves around!’”

Elena Montoto interacts with young visitors at the Bee's Honeycomb Structure hands-on activity.

Plus, like Favela, Montoto also likes seeing how much the kids enjoy it:

“The kids’ faces!" she admits. "It’s so adorable! They light up, and I just enjoy it,”

Montoto acknowledges that she also hopes to pique kids’ interest in science early on; she’d like some to end up doing science down the road.

A Ciencias! visitor gets an upclose look at earthworms making compost.

“Science is what I do,” she adds. “I wish more kids would go into science. All my classes were always small in undergraduate. So if we can get more people interested in the hard sciences— chemistry, entomology, engineering—I think that’s a step up and beneficial for the kids to get them interested early.”

During Ciencias!, a young student enjoys learning about solar energy.

One local parent shares why she brought her son to the outreach. "So he is really interested in science, so any way we can find to make science fun and make him continue to be interested in science, we'll do it," she admits.

Another parent, who used to work for the bilingual program in the Urbana School District and was familiar with SACNAS and its Cena Y Ciencias outreach with the bilingual students, says, "I know what great work that they do with students and the scientific experiments. And my daughter loves science, so I thought it would be fun!"

Story and photographs by Elizabeth Innes, Communications Specialist, I-STEM Education Initiative.

More: K-6 Outreach, SACNAS, Underserved Minorities, 2018

For other I-STEM articles about SACNAS and some of their outerach events, see:

At the solar energy station, young students read an instrument to determine how much energy the solar panel is producing.