Think UW scientists are holed up all day in their labs, hunched over their microscopes, lost in their own little worlds of mice and mitochondria? Think again. A conglomerate outreach effort dubbed the UW Science Alliance links award-winning research scientists, professors, and student volunteers with schools, community groups, parents and kids.
Forget textbooks, worksheets and lectures. Try hissing Madagascar cockroaches in the classroom, a chance to create your very own biological microcosm, and the UW's nifty, open-to-the-public Physics Museum - a deliciously geeky pantheon of gyroscopes, pendulums, motors and magnets, all set up for hands-on interaction. A physics museum in Madison! Who knew?
But that's just the smoking tip of the dry-ice-berg. These UW science educators want to show, share and involve kids in as many hands-on activities as they can, in order to spark the kind of excitement that leads to lifelong intellectual curiosity.
"The most precious thing we have to offer, as researchers, are the ways in which we probe the unknown," says Tom Zinnen, who heads up the Science Alliance, in addition to BioTrek, the outreach arm of the UW's Biotechnology Center. "Our programs don't just point out what we know. Through hands-on learning, kids discover what makes a good experiment. We nurture skepticism, creativity, ingenuity - all the qualities of a truly great researcher."
Any scientist worth his NaCl will tell you that a great way to learn is by striking off on your own. Did you know that there are more than 30 campus science outlets, many with public visiting hours?
"I call them ‘boutique science venues,'" says Zinnen (who must have dropped in on a marketing class or two). He encourages parents and kids to poke around on campus. "It's called BioTrek for a reason," he notes. His group wants people to see science not only as an intellectual trek through Web sites and textbooks, but a physical journey as well: "Walk around to Babcock Hall, Allen Gardens, the D.C. Smith Greenhouse. They're all within a couple blocks of each other. See the ice cream being processed, watch the cows get milked, get up close to the plants that are being studied."
Also in the area is Science House, the home of Dr. Paul Williams' Bottle Biology and Fast Plants programs. The building's worth a visit for its historical significance alone (it's the oldest frame building on campus, and was once the studio for artist-in-residence Aaron Bohrod). Science-oriented groups meet there, grad students wander in and out, and Williams still works on Fast Plants, his patented speed-growth plants, in the back.
"Science House is like a village commons," says Williams, who was "given" the space when he retired from teaching more than 10 years ago so he could continue his grassroots education efforts. "If you'd dropped in yesterday, you'd have seen a troop of Brownies, with several parents, busy doing Bottle Biology."
Cutting up old plastic bottles, filling them with soils, mosses and "critters," and watching what develops is the essence of Bottle Biology. The best introduction to the program is through Olbrich Gardens, where docents trained by Dr. Williams share Bottle Biology with school classes during the week and the public on Saturdays.
It's not just popular here; last month, Williams was invited to the opening of the National Botanic Garden in Washington, D.C., where he led a family workshop on the making of Lilliputian gardens in plastic cups.
"Every blessed thing in the Sandbox is a teaching tool," says Williams, referring to the Paul's Sandbox link on his Web site. Neat, handwritten instructions for building all sorts of micro-environments come in downloadable PDF format. His book, Bottle Biology, is available locally and has been translated into at least five languages.
The L.R. Ingersoll Physics Museum is a "boutique venue" that's easy to find, yet unknown to every parent informally surveyed for this article. Don't be intimidated. It's delightfully visitor-friendly.
"Everybody is an expert in physics," says Jim Reardon, director of introductory courses, UW physics department. "But it's like meditation. You have to slow down and reflect on your experiences."
Located just off the lobby of Chamberlin Hall, the door to the museum stands invitingly ajar. You may be the only visitor. All is still. And yet the air seems to shimmer with the potential for movement. Silver momentum balls hang silently, side by side. A shiny bicycle wheel (which serves as an interactive gyroscope) dangles from the ceiling. Pulleys and pendulums stand ready to prove Newton's first law of motion: bodies at rest will remain at rest until poked and prodded by excited young scientists.
Keep walking (or biking). View interesting plants in the Wisconsin State Herbarium, and ogle the bugs in the Insect Research Collection.
Isolating DNA "glop" from wheat germ is a favorite hands-on experiment at Family Horticulture Day, held each spring at the West Madison Agricultural Research Station. Experts in biotechnology, horticulture and agronomy set up Exploration Stations so kids and grownups can get their hands wet, dirty, soapy or gooey as they unravel some of the mysteries of life science. Lining up at the Biotech Exploration Station, kids mix wheat germ with water, Palmolive liquid and alcohol. The formula, gently shaken, reveals silken strands floating up through the water. White and gloppy, that's wheat germ DNA.
"What do you think the green goo is?" Zinnen asks. "How does it smell?" He compares the DNA to "a recipe card for living things" and asks, "Which would you rather have? A plate of cookies, or the recipe - so you could make more when they are gone?" His spiel isn't off-the-cuff; it's been carefully crafted to catch kids' attention with easy steps, plain language and lots of questions.
Scientists who volunteer to staff Exploration Stations at schools and special events are known as Puzzle Partners. "They don't stand there giving out the answers," Zinnen explains. "It's different from what many people have experienced in science class. We're interested in developing the ‘searching skills.'"
Let's wrap up with a bang. A long row of test tubes brimful with jewel-toned liquids lines the counter in the onstage lab of Dr. Bassam Shakashiri. Pacing along, dispensing mysterious substances as he goes, Shakashiri sets each tube bubbling and foaming like some medieval potion.
"Welcome to my lab," he announces. "Be on the lookout for colorful changes and loud explosions."
Kids and parents clap their hands over their ears in anticipation. The show is "Once Upon a Christmas Cheery, In the Lab of Shakashiri," an annual, free program that draws packed crowds not only in Madison, but at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. and Boston's Museum of Science.
Shakashiri, the William T. Evjue Distinguished Chair for the Wisconsin Idea, was doing outreach long before it was cool, back when the heads of most departments really were holed up in labs. Forty years ago, research was in. Sharing was not.
"I'm pleased with the program," says Shakashiri, referring to his Initiative for Science Literacy, which fosters a broad appreciation for science among the general public. "It's rewarding to see colleagues across campus reaching out to different groups. Hey, maybe some of them will beat my record of 37 straight years of putting on this show."
A cork explodes from an enormous plastic bottle. Shakashiri beams at the wincing audience members.
"Not everything goes up with a bang," he tells them. "But we can always have a ‘bang' of understanding."