By Chris Jarvis, Texas A&M University College of Science
As a top international scientist specializing in materials and polymer chemistry, Texas A&M University chemist Dr. Karen L. Wooley is no stranger to being recruited. But when local elementary school teachers Robin Haas and Alison Dippel approached her for help in hosting an evening of interactive science exhibits at their school for their students and their families last spring, she assumed it would be a one-time thing.
However, the event, dubbed Science Night, was so well received by both students and parents at Pebble Creek Elementary School that Wooley, a distinguished professor of chemistry and holder of the W.T. Doherty-Welch Chair in Chemistry, together with postdoctoral associate Dr. Rachel Letteri, Ph.D. student David Tran and other members of her research group have been invited to host it for a second time on Tuesday, April 24, from 6:30 to 8 p.m.
In fact, the concept behind the 2017 inaugural event was so successful, it spawned a $15,000 grant that will enable Science Night to be brought to three additional elementary-level schools of low-income status with high populations of underrepresented minorities beginning next year.
The grant, recently awarded through the College of Science Diversity and Equity Innovation Program on top of the $2,000 the college already contributed in support of the April 24 event, will enable Science Night to be brought to three additional area elementary-level schools of low-income status with high populations of underrepresented minorities beginning next year.
“The longevity of the program is going to depend on how well we can support it, and this grant will provide substantial support this year,” Wooley said. “It’s just a remarkable opportunity to reach out to the community and excite kids about science, and we want to continue to expand our efforts so that even more kids can be excited.”
Roughly 350 of Pebble Creek’s students and their families turned out for the inaugural Science Night last year, far exceeding both Wooley’s and the teachers’ wildest expectations. Industry representatives as well as researchers from the Department of Chemistry, Department of Biology and College of Engineering were on hand to present 15 kid-friendly demonstrations on subjects ranging from polymers to fossil exploration to DNA extraction. The children also were given starter kits with science supplies and instructions for simple experiments they could do at home.
Haas and Dippel, who each teach second grade at Pebble Creek, first conceptualized Science Night after being challenged by the Teacher Leadership Academy to identify and pursue a “risk-taking opportunity” that would benefit their school. Dippel said their idea for Science Night seemed like a fitting way to combine family entertainment and educational outreach.
“Science Night is very important,” Dippel said. “It’s not just fun and games; it’s a learning opportunity for kids, and it just starts opening all the different possibilities that are available to them. It makes them ask more questions and dig deeper into their learning.”
Haas reached out to Wooley, a personal friend, for advice on how to bring their vision to fruition but was taken by surprise when Wooley and her laboratory offered to handle the logistics.
“I’ve been at Pebble Creek for 18 years, and we’ve never had anything like [Science Night], so I just thought, ‘What a great thing,'” Haas said. “I’d seen it done at other schools but didn’t know where to start or what to do, but we knew we had this great idea. Everything was above and beyond what we ever expected it could be.”
Wooley says she was eager to help bring the two educators’ outreach program to life, despite an already full schedule of teaching and research in Texas A&M Chemistry, in addition to joint appointments in the Department of Chemical Engineering and Department of Materials Science and Engineering. She credits members of her research group for doing the lion’s share of the behind-the-scenes work to ensure that the first Science Night was a success.
“I think we’re all quite busy, but we have an obligation to the community,” Wooley said. “I feel privileged to be able to do what I do here at Texas A&M, so I have to give back in any way that I can. But this wasn’t just my doing; it was the enthusiasm of my students and postdocs to lead the effort that really made Science Night such a big event.”
While the next three schools to host Science Night have yet to be selected, Wooley says that when they are, they can count on a memorable evening of up-close and personal science with real scientists.
“I think that interaction is going to translate and potentially be contagious, so that students will realize that science isn’t scary,” Wooley said. “Science can be fun.”
To learn more about the upcoming Pebble Creek Science Night, contact Dippel or Haas at (979) 764-5595.
For additional information about Wooley’s teaching, research and service-related activities, visit her Texas A&M Chemistry faculty page.
This story by Chris Jarvis originally appeared on the College of Science website.