Saturday, November 14, 2009

Volcanic eruptions in classroom

The volcano was only a few inches tall and its lava was pinkish but the bubbling demonstration was a favorite of many of the fourth-graders attending Science Days at Angelo State University.

“I want to experience volcanoes,” Breanna Motes, a student at McGill Elementary School. “My favorite thing was the volcanoes.”

Joe Satterfield, an ASU Geology Department associate professor, and five graduate students last week demonstrated two types of volcanic eruptions with table-top models to groups of about 30 kids who rotated through the six morning sessions.

“I expect to see some of you back here in eight years,” Satterfield said, taking the opportunity to start recruiting the mostly 10-year-old children.

The decade-old Science Days program brings students from area elementary schools into the halls of ASU’s Cavness Science Building to experience chemistry, biochemistry, biology, geology, physics and math through hands-on experiences, said the program’s organizer, Nick Flynn, associate professor of biochemistry.

“Different departments were doing a very good job independently,” Flynn said. “Physics with its planetarium. Biology has those collections (mammals, plants, reptiles). We just decided to put it all together for a one-day experience.”

About 700 fourth-graders will attend Science Days this month, which began last week and continues today and Thursday. Students from 10 of the 17 San Angelo Independent School District elementaries are scheduled to attend, as are students from Big Lake, Wall, Angelo Catholic School, San Angelo Christian Academy and the San Angelo Christian Home School Association.

McGill student Hallie Walker also said she enjoyed the volcano demonstration in the day’s geology session.

“I also like the one where all the animals were stuffed, the skunk and the armadillo,” she said. “I’m going to be a veterinarian.”

The taxidermy display in the mammal room is impressive. One long wall is hung with more than 22 mounted heads, many of them from exotic animals such as a giraffe head and neck (at least 8 feet tall), a water buffalo and a reindeer. Other walls are covered with horned and antlered skulls, while an elephant skull rests on a metal file cabinet.

Loren Ammeran, an associate professor of biology, let the children a beaver pelt and showed them its identifying tail and teeth. She displayed a preserved black-and-white ruffed lemur.

“Has anyone seen the movie ‘Madagascar’? Madagascar is a real place,” she said, explaining the lemur was a native of that island off the east coast of Africa.

Ammeran, who has participated in Science Days for the past five years, said the children are always excited and full of questions.

“Some of them are very impressive,” she said. “It depends on what they’ve been studying at school, sometimes you hit it dead on.”

The reptile session, held in a crowded basement room smelling of formaldehyde, was not universally popular. Several students said they had to leave the room because of the odor.

Madison Stewart, Hallie’s cousin and also a student at McGill, disagreed.

“I liked the part where they showed the reptiles in the jars,” she said. “It didn’t smell so bad.”

Jason Strickland, the biology graduate student leading the reptile session, kept going with the 25-minute program. After all, for every child who left the room feeling sick, there were a dozen straining to get a closer look at the stubby arms on a giant salamander or a bullfrog big enough to fill a gallon jar.

He carefully uncoiled a snake from another jar.

“Cottonmouths, these are the guys I’m doing my research on so I catch them regularly,” he told the children. “But other snakes are in the river and most aren’t cottonmouths so don’t kill them, just avoid them.”

The Herbarium, a spacious, well-lit room only a floor above the reptile collection, holds the university’s plant collection.

Hollie Laqua, a graduate student for professor Bonnie Amos, the Herbarium’s curator, presided for Science Day, guiding the students in a discussion of such plant survival techniques as bullhorn acacia’s ant-infested spines and poison ivy’s rash-inducing chemical.

Bowie Elementary School student Bethany Gates, after attending only two of the six morning sessions, said she had already learned something from the chemistry discussion in the hands-on session.

“I learned that if you use a pentagon every time you draw a star, there’ll be another pentagon inside it,” she said.

McGill’s Breanna and her classmate, Cassie Bagwell, also said the hands-on session was the best.

“You got to look at eyeballs and cockroaches,” Breanna said.

“And hearts and brains,” Cassie said. “I’m going to be a wildlife veterinarian when I grow up.”

By far the most popular event of Science Days, however, is the afternoon Magic Show put on to demonstrate aspects of chemistry and physics.

Kevin Boudreaux, chemistry instructor and ASU’s resident magician, said the show has been part of the Science Days program since the beginning.

“The kids get a kick out of it, especially when anything burns or blows up,” Boudreaux said.

The program drew screams and standing ovations, especially when “magician’s assistant” Shane Anderson put flame to anything.

“I like to make things go boom,” the computer science major said.

He is minoring in chemistry minor and, along with Tania Estrada, had volunteered to participate in the show.

“We have to specifically choose things that look spectacular but are still safe,” Boudreaux said.

“Don’t want to set off smoke alarms,” Estrada, a biochemistry major, said.

“These are demonstrations that have been around for a while,” Boudreaux said. “Just to keep things interesting, we do new ones periodically, like the elephant toothpaste one. Somebody saw that at an (American Chemical Society) meeting a couple of years ago.”

The auditorium emptied and the children headed in scraggly lines for waiting school buses, marking the end of another ASU Science Day.

“We’re doing six to eight Science Days a year,” organizer Flynn said. “We’re getting into about 10 years, close to 10,000 students. We’re getting students who did Science Days and we’re seeing them again in college.”

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