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The substance of science
With a few deft flicks of her wrist, the third-grader put the finishing touches on a Nobel Prize-winning science experiment.
The young scientist, a student at the Gardner Pilot Academy in Boston’s Allston neighborhood, was busy creating graphene, a tiny carbon strand that is 200 times stronger than steel, yet can be produced by folding and peeling sticky tape over a piece of pencil graphite. University of Manchester researchers Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov were awarded the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics for their work with this material.
Antoine Vignon, a Howard University undergraduate working at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) this summer as part of the Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) Program, explained some of the material’s exceptional properties to the third-grader and her peers. Vignon joined several other REU students who visited the Gardner Pilot Academy on June 21 to conduct hands-on science demonstrations.
“In a way, teaching these students about graphene gives them a glimpse of the future,” he said. “Due to the unique and useful properties of graphene, a conductive material that is stronger than steel, it will be used in the production of a wide variety of electronic devices.”
This summer, Vignon will study applications of graphene for flexible screens in the lab of Donhee Ham, Gordon McKay Professor of Electrical Engineering and Applied Physics.
His tape and pencil demonstration was one of several science experiments students could try themselves. At the adjacent station, REU students Alina Diaz and Nooralhuda Arkan slid a magnet along a test tube filled with a clear solution to demonstrate the unique properties of ferrofluid, which contains suspended magnetic nanoparticles that enable the substance to act like a liquid and a magnetic solid.
“Even more than teaching these kids about ferrofluids, I want to show them that science is all about making new things and discovering something new to make the world a better place,” said Arkan, an undergraduate at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio.
For Louis Paul Romero, it was rewarding to share his love of science with the young students. Romero, an undergraduate at Hartnell College in Salinas, Calif., serves as president of the college math club, and plans to incorporate his experiences at Gardner Pilot Academy into math-related programs for schools in his community.
Romero, who demonstrated how super-absorbent hydrogel polymers instantly convert liquids into solid particles, said the event highlighted the importance of encouraging children to keep exploring.
“These kids are going to make real change in this world that is going to impact all our communities,” he said. “I want them to be inspired to pursue science, to not be fearful of it, and to understand that the process of discovery can be fun.”
Third-grader Analys Urbina grinned broadly as she watched the liquid in her plastic cup instantly become a gelatinous, white solid. She overturned the cup and shook it vigorously, but the contents would not budge.
“I like science because you get to explore new things,” she said, delicately prodding the squishy mass with a finger.
Kathryn Hollar, Director of Education Programs at SEAS, hopes Urbina and her peers will consider pursuing STEM in college and as careers. In 2020, SEAS will move into a state-of-the-art Science and Engineering Complex a few blocks from the Allston school, so Hollar considers local outreach events a form of “talent scouting” for future Harvard engineers. For REU students, who will spend their summers immersed in intensive laboratory projects, the educational event helped them become better community-minded science communicators, Hollar said.
“It is great to see the excitement the middle school students have to learn something new from a young scientist or engineer,” she said. “By seeing science demonstrations from college undergraduates, I hope the elementary and middle school students understand that they can be scientists, too.”