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Sing a Song of Science

Sing a Song of Science by Elizabeth Vallen, associate professor of biology

Quite a din rose from the upper lobby of the Lang Music Building as voices of all pitches intermingled in excited symphony during the annual Science Fair hosted by members of the Chester Children's Chorus. Five weeks of biology, chemistry, and physics classes led by faculty, staff, and students from Swarthmore as well as a couple of alumni schoolteachers and some local college students resulted in a stunning display of scientific achievement.

Surrounded by milling throngs of visitors, children stood at tables around the lobby presenting their projects with enthusiasm and self-confidence. Posters, designed with sophistication and creativity, summarizing the children's activities, hung on the walls behind them demonstrating that they are not only musically gifted, but are also quite science-savvy.

Jordan Sarinana

"I'd like to be a scientist because I'd try to make the world a better place to live," said Jordan Sarinana, 14. Jordan worked with Kassandra Stevenson, 14, on investigating substances to identify them as acids or bases. "We used Tums and vitamin C tablets. We mashed them up, put them in separate bowls, then added water to make them liquid," Kassandra said. "Then we dipped strips of litmus paper — that's an indicator — into the bowls. If the paper turned red or orange, it was acid; if it turned blue or green, it was a base."

The children come into the program bringing a range of science experiences from their elementary schools in Chester, Pa., including a number with no experience with hands-on work. It's essential that we give them the opportunity to explore science and the scientific process. For some of the children, it's the first time they've looked through a microscope, set up an experiment, or been out into the woods.

We start off with attention-grabbing materials to get the children to think like scientists and look at things the way scientists do. My group first did a unit on solids and liquids, where we made ooblek (cornstarch, water, and dye) and slime (borax, glue, and water) and characterized their different properties.

We also talked a lot about food webs and the relationships between plants and animals. One day, I brought in lots of different fruits and vegetables, and while we ate them, we talked about various parts of plants that are edible, such as stalks, roots, leaves, and fruits. We also discussed pollination, and the children were fascinated and quite shocked to find that flowers have male and female parts. Then we went outside to watch the bees and other pollinators.

Jazmin Saranana

Jazmin Saranana enjoyed using the Crum Woods as a laboratory, "I studied English ivy and poison ivy, and I also learned about hemlock trees. The hemlocks have white aphids on them that destroy the trees, so there's not a lot of them around any more."

Some of the children were excited, others were nervous about being around bees. We looked at flowers outside, then took the children back into the lab where they grew their own flowering plants called Wisconsin Fast Plants—one of our teachers, Pat Cronin '83 from Swarthmore-Rutledge Elementary School, had used them in his class at SRS and thought they'd be a good match for our curriculum. Developed by a scientist to grow really quickly for teaching purposes, they go from seed to seed in five weeks, so the children could see the whole plant life cycle. They were able to pollinate their own flowers, using some bees that had died naturally at the end of the season. First, the children looked at the bees under a microscope and observed the how hairy they looked, and saw how the pollen stuck to the many bristles on the bees. They dissected flowers to see their various parts, and finally they stroked pollen using the bees from the anther of one flower onto the stigma of another.

We try to make the children aware of the many ways that science is in their lives and that it matters. We brainstorm about what scientists do, about their helping people and figuring out solutions to problems that can help the world be a better place. We want them to see science as a force for good and, at the very least, become more educated consumers of science. And if we end up producing any scientists, that would, of course, be wonderful.

Shamar Foster

When Shamar Foster saw how fast his plant was growing, he commented, "Whoah! That's cool! Yeah, pollination! Rock on!"

Most children start the science program when they're rising sixth-graders — the year they graduate from the Training Chorus to the Concert Chorus. By then they've spent enough time in the chorus to have developed the necessary focus and self-control to do the science class.

Their first summer of involvement, which focuses on biology, is followed by chemistry in the second year and physics in the third.

In chemistry this year, led by associate professor Kathleen Howard, assistant professor Alison Holliday and senior lecturer Ginger Indivero, they've focused on ways to separate substances, such as the separation of colors that are found in KoolAid and spinach. They also did a crime scene unit, where they use what they've learned to solve a mystery.

In physics, children working with associate professor of physics Carl Grossman and alumnus Joe Alberti '06 analyzed rocket trajectories. Carl built rockets, which they launched, and then, they built their own and shot them off and studied their paths.

Ja'Quay Lundy

Ja'Quay Lundy, 13, and Tiani McCarthy, 13, explain the way in which pulse and heart rates change when subjected to temperature changes and intense activity to associate provost and professor of education Lisa Smulyan.

Our oldest group, rising ninth-and tenth-graders, has completed the cycle and has been doing advanced biology with laboratory instructor Jocelyne Noveral. Jocelyne guided and supported these students as they decided what they were interested in studying, which included DNA and how we digest food and get energy from it.

The curriculum varies according to which faculty members are on campus during the summer—in the past, we've also had astronomy, computer science and engineering. Professor and chair of the Educational Studies Department, Ann Renninger and her student researchers have been key in assessing the program, evaluating in what ways the children benefit from it and making suggestions about how to improve the program. Early on, they found that the children had increased enthusiasm for science, such as they might have picked up by visiting a science museum. Last year, Ann and her Swarthmore student coworkers helped us to develop and implement a series of "I can" statements to help the children think harder and write with more focus on what they're doing and learning. Her post-program assessment from last year and this year indicated that the children displayed a more cemented fund of knowledge and understanding after the program ended. Ann has already presented aspects of this work at conferences and publications. We believe that our experiences and model can have a positive effect on other science community partnership programs.

Glenn Simpson

Glenn Simpson created an impressive poster on how to dissect a mink and compare it to the human body.

For me, doing science from year to year with this cohort of children from an underserved community is wonderful. I get to show them aspects of the world they might not otherwise have the opportunity to see. That's phenomenally gratifying. The kids are very smart, competent, enthusiastic, and thoughtful. And when we have the Science Fair at the end of the summer, we see them really take ownership of their projects as they explain them to the other children so enthusiastically that each group becomes excited about advancing to the next level the following year, and the new rising sixth-graders can't wait to start biology.

Elizabeth Vallen

Elizabeth Vallen, associate professor of biology, is the coordinator of the Summer Science Program for the Chester Children's Chorus. She enjoys teaching the youngest group of children throughout the summer program. Professor Vallen notes that it's fun to see her college students who volunteer with the program develop in their roles as leaders in the classroom and labs. The Summer Science Program, which began in 2004, is supported by a generous grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI).