CATALYST Conference 2012

Swarthmore students and local middle schoolers pose for a picture while learning about separation.

CATALYST, formerly Expanding Your Horizons, held its conference on March 17, 2012. The conference, organized entirely by Swarthmore students, invited middle school-aged girls to Swarthmore's campus for a series of hands-on workshops in the natural sciences, math, and engineering. In addition to the science workshops, Swarthmore students also encouraged discussions about gender and how it affects the girls' lives. This year, 15 Swarthmore students organized this project with the help of 16 professors (4 of which were from the chemistry department), and 36 girls attended from 9 different middle schools in the area.

Chemistry Workshops

The workshops included a wide array of experiments to demonstrate the science and math in our everyday life. For example, in the chemistry experiments, purple cabbage was used as a pH indicator and purple Kool Aid was separated by column chromatography.

Extracting DNA from Strawberries

  • Lead by Dr. Liliya Yatsunyk and Dr. Maria Newport, this workshop investigated the following questions: What is DNA? What happens if it gets damaged? Who studies DNA? Why is DNA extraction important? This workshop also allowed students to perform a DNA extraction and visualize strands of DNA for themselves.

Colorful Chemistry

  • This workshop was lead by Dr. Alison Holliday and Dr. Kathleen Howard. In it, participants mixed household materials with acid-base indicators to produce brilliantly colored solutions. The solutions were then mixed to initiate bubbling chemical transformations. Finally, participants learned about the synthetic dyes used to color food products and performed an experiment to figure out which colored dyes were combined to generate the dazzling hues of popular drink mixes.

Student Reactions

When asked "what did you enjoy most about the 'Extracting DNA from Strawberries' workshop?", one girl eagerly replied "seeing the strawberry DNA!" Another pointed out that "everything making DNA is awesome," and a third remarked that "doing the work was AWESOME!". And when asked what they liked least, the girls humorously pointed out their disappointments stemmed from "not being able to eat the strawberry," the fact that "[her] hands got buffering solution all over them," and being stuck in the lab with "the smell of the strawberries".

This program proved to be helpful to all of those involved. It created a fellowship between middle school students and Swarthmore students/faculty and allowed for a collaboration between Swarthmore and other institutions. Moreover, this workshop was not only a great opportunity for Swarthmore to help give back to others, but also a fun and interactive way to promote science to young girls.