Marion Johnson, who is in the fourth grade at Aldo Leopold Elementary School, helps prepare a microscope lens.
Imagine posing a choice of activities to a class of seventh-graders as a reward for getting to class on time: Would you rather go bowling, watch a movie or do some science?
Nineteen students from Cherokee Middle School voted overwhelmingly for a science field trip, says Travis Tangen, education and outreach manager at Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation Discovery Outreach. As a result, they visited the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery on University Avenue last December, where they took a workshop on computer-assisted design, designed obstacle courses and even fabricated prototypes.
For Discovery Outreach staff, this is evidence that they are fulfilling their mission to make science fun and accessible for kids of all ages and socioeconomic backgrounds.
"That kind of thing happens," says Laura Heisler, director of programming at WARF. "I had a mom say she tried to get her kid to go to [the Dells water park] Mt. Olympus, but it was a day when we had Saturday Science, and he absolutely insisted on coming here instead."
Saturday Science is a popular free drop-in program held at the Town Center at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery the first Saturday of each month. There kids of all ages learn about the physics of breakdancing, astrobiology, science of the brain, and the farms and fields of Wisconsin. In 2013, typical attendance at Saturday Science ranged from 300 to 600 participants.
But Saturday Science is just the tip of the iceberg. In her position, Heisler shares responsibility for managing the staff, shared spaces and teaching labs that make up the K-12 programs run by Discovery Outreach, a joint venture of WARF and the Morgridge Institute for Research. Last year, field trip programs served at least 4,000 K-12 students; that doesn't include the thousands who flocked to the Wisconsin Science Festival, which attracted nearly 3,000 young people from around the state last September.
Afterschool Expeditions, a weekly program offered 2:30 to 4 p.m. on Mondays during the school year, served 2,475 young people last year, many of them low-income kids from community centers in Madison.
Heisler says she's been shocked by the demand for science programs for young people. "Once they know about it, there's an insatiable desire to get more," she says. "I really chalk that up to people understanding the importance of science in opening opportunities for their kids, counterbalancing what they're not getting elsewhere in their lives."
Opportunities for discovery have been built into the very structure of the building, Heisler explains, asking me to look down. The entire floor of the Town Center is hewn from stone littered with Dead Sea fossils. "Fossils mean you're already discovering," she says.
Visitors can also visit a curated Mesozoic-era garden or view a video projection from a microscope of squiggly creatures called C. elegans, used widely in genetic research. On Saturdays, kids can participate in a "drawing jam" with cartoonist Lynda Barry in the "idea lab." And that's just a fraction of the fun and interactive science available to anyone who enters the building.
"We've been developing our K-12 activities to connect with the science going on in the building and on campus," says Heisler. "We work with researchers to think about: What are they doing, and how can we relate a sophisticated concept like epigenetics to a seventh-grader? And we're having surprising success. We have activities around microfluidics and systems biology, virology -- a lot of things you would think are not accessible."
The Town Center, with its open layout, is designed to be a public space. And part of the vision behind it is fostering collaboration, including among generations. "This is an urban campus," says Heisler. "How do we create this connector space that brings people from different disciplines together, people from different walks of life, people from on campus and off campus, and really create this melting pot of ideas?"
An authentic lab experience
John Morgridge, the philanthropist whose funds backed the Morgridge Institute for Research, was a Wauwatosa native and UW grad who became CEO at Cisco. Morgridge has pledged millions to philanthropic efforts, including $175 million to the Fund for Wisconsin Scholars, which helps low-income students attend colleges and universities. Morgridge's wife, Tashia, taught special education for many years.
"Tashia Morgridge wanted to know: How do you give kids an authentic lab experience?" says Heisler. Discovery has three fully outfitted teaching labs: a physical science lab, a life science lab and a computer lab. "They are every bit as sophisticated as the labs the researchers are in, with the same infrastructure," says Heisler. "We wear gloves and goggles and do lab experiments with kindergartners through adults."
And scientists conduct research alongside the enthusiastic kids. "We encourage researchers when they are here doing their work to talk a little bit to the kids about what they are doing. They get to see that researchers come in all shapes and sizes," says Heisler.
When I entered the second-floor lab, second- and third-graders from Madison School and Community Recreation were getting oriented to the science of stem cells. "Ooh, this looks like so much fun," one girl said as Elizabeth Clawson, a volunteer, asked for student volunteers to represent a stem cell and a scientist. I met Val Blair, education and outreach manager for the Morgridge Institute for Research, who led a pilot program with the school district's talented and gifted program last year. Students differentiated stem cells into beating cardiomyocytes (heart cells), applied drugs and observed the result: The cells stopped beating.
Two floors up, in another gleaming lab, fourth- and fifth-graders were preparing an experiment on chromatography, lab techniques scientists use to separate out components from solutions.
Students from the Boys & Girls Club of Dane County attend Afterschool Expeditions every week. The club functions as an "alpha group," says Heisler. "They're helping us figure it out. They'll say 'this is fun' or 'this is boring.' They're giving us real-time feedback in helping develop the activities, and in ensuring that the activities are culturally relevant."
Travis Tangen taught science at Memorial High School for more than a decade before becoming education and outreach manager. He says his goal is to "make sure all the kids who come here have those inklings of curiosity that they leave with, a bit of content and the inspiration that continues beyond the experience. We try to focus on making sure that access is fair -- providing venues for transportation, providing help with parking, so that you can just focus on the learning. The things you think are little things can make a big difference."
The overarching goal of Discovery Outreach is to make science more broadly accessible, adds Heisler. "It's all an effort to demystify what science is and increase people's sense of themselves as scientists.
"You have a built-in scientist. We are all born physicists, we are all born mathematicians. It's just a matter of connecting to that."