Children thrilled with experiment

Science: For the second year, the Johns Hopkins University welcomes pupils for a day and lets them dabble in the laboratory.

March 29, 2002|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

Liquid nitrogen, which researcher Sean O'Hearn described as "colder than the moon," looks like a witches' brew of steam, and yesterday a working group of fifth-graders from Tench Tilghman Elementary School saw a spellbinding use for it at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

"You know the best kind of science there is? The kind you can eat!" O'Hearn told the half a dozen youngsters, who were visiting for the second annual Community Science Day, as he energetically added elements of chocolate ice cream - milk, cocoa syrup, sugar and peanut butter pieces - to the liquid nitrogen moments before the lunch break.

"I'm eating that," Ryheem Booth, 10, declared as he and the others leapt to their feet in a biochemistry lab overlooking East Baltimore.

Ryheem, a promising science pupil in Florence Graves' class, illustrates why the prominent medical complex opened its gates to all 90 fifth-graders from the inner-city public school.

The goal on the surface is to make science fun and share elementary knowledge with the help of sophisticated equipment. But the underlying idea, according to the doctor who dreamed up the event, has a more serious purpose: to open young minds to possible careers in science and medicine.

"Some people who work here just come through this neighborhood and go home. What we can do to give back something unique is share what we know," said skin cancer researcher Rhoda Alani, a recently transplanted New Yorker.

Yesterday was the second time the medical school's Institute for Basic Biomedical Sciences welcomed city schoolchildren and the first time Tench Tilghman pupils took a field trip to the nearby medical institution.

"The only thing they knew about Johns Hopkins was that they go there if they get sick or if they visit someone who's sick. So they're used to seeing doctors, but not DNA [deoxyribonucleic acid] and how each person's is different," Graves said.

DNA and chocolate ice cream were just two of the treats in store. Eighteen researchers and several faculty members gave hands-on lessons for small groups, and four graduate students presented an entertainment show as a grand finale.

After using an eerie blue light to demonstrate the phenomenon of "chemiluminescence," which lights up fireflies on midsummer nights, the graduate students awed their audience when 10-year-old Gabriel Washington was taken out of his wheelchair and placed on a small hovercraft. The boy grinned shyly as he sat on what seemed like a magic carpet.

Researchers, such as developmental biologist Geraldine Seydoux, said they enjoyed explaining their work to eager listeners. Seydoux, who won a coveted MacArthur Fellowship or "genius award" last year, showed her small group images of how worms go from conception to birth - in 13 hours.

Some visitors were asked to swab the inside of their cheek so they could view images of their cells. Others watched fruit flies under a microscope and learned that the insects are helpful to the study of human genetics. There was a carbon dioxide lesson about what humans exhale. And a lucky few got to don goggles and purple gloves to produce chemical reactions, often accompanied by squeals of delight.

Five girls learned about diffusion, a process in which particles move from areas of higher to lower density. After they watched eggs change from immersion in water and vinegar, there was a moment of truth and understanding.

Janiece Brown, 11, who belongs to an after-school science club, said, "I'm going to tell my mother all about science and diffusion."

Maurice Sweat, 36, who runs the club, said that a glimpse into the academic realm might make a difference. "The concepts could pique their curiosity. You can open up a child's eye with one experiment or one day," Sweat said.

Brian V. Geisbrecht, a biochemist, said the experience heartened the Hopkins hosts as well as their guests, who were sent away with experiment kits. "We really take for granted what we do, but to them, it's fantastic," he said.

"It's nice to go back to what got us here," Seydoux said, "the wonderment of nature."

John Belford, 11, said after the day's visit: "I'm going to do more science, anywhere I can."

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