Children hammered fern leaves to make chlorophyll impressions on T-shirts while learning about photosynthesis and plant cells at the Ultimate Science Street Fair in New York recently.
That was one of several outdoor offerings at the event, which also included life-sized dinosaur puppets, plant parasites and face painting booths where kids were painted in the form of butterfly heads or galaxies. Nobel Prize winning physicist William Phillips
was also there talking about Albert Einstein and the very coldest things in the universe.
The street science fair was part of the annual World Science Festival.
Organizers hoped to entertain young people while also inspiring them to pursue science careers.
“When you look at what makes a kid’s eyes open wide, it’s not learning facts and spitting them back on an exam. And when science is taught like that, it’s a tragedy, because it’s missing the whole fact that the most dramatic of all stories is scientific discovery," says Columbia University physicist and author Brian Greene,
who co-founded the World Science Festival. "It’s real. It’s not coming out of some Hollywood screenwriter’s head. It’s the way the universe works. That’s thrilling.”
In a nearby classroom, it was the world inside the skull that thrilled a group of children ranging in age from nine to 14. They dissected sheep brains under the guidance of New York University neurologist Wendy Suzuki
“Part of my goal is to get them interested in just questions in science and what science is," Suzuki says. "It’s just asking questions about cool things. So I bring them something cool. I bring them a human brain. I bring them a sheep brain, and so hopefully what they are realizing is that they are practicing being scientists, right in that session.”
One boy relished the workshop’s “yuk” factor. “I really liked it. Some parts freaked me out. Like the middle of the brain because I didn’t know that was inside me.”
The “Smell Lab” was one of the fair’s most popular exhibits. It was run by International Fragrance and Flavors, Inc
., which researches and develops odors and tastes for consumer markets. IFF organic chemist Paul Jones and his colleagues love to explain to kids how the nose “knows.”
“What I tell them is the molecules get into their nose and hit certain little receptors which are like tiny little locks in the top of our nose," Jones says, "and once those locks are open, it triggers certain centers in your brain and your brain goes ‘Oh, that’s a citrus note’ or ‘That’s a musk note,’ or ‘That’s raspberry’ or whatever.”
Kids at the exhibit were able to choose from an array of scents, and then combine them to make a "perfume” to take home.
Outside, children were enthralled by a 19th century German calliope, part of a travelling show about inventions by the Coney Island-based Museum of Interesting Things
. Denny Daniel, its impresario, says the automatic butter churn and Thomas Edison’s audio recording cylinder were based on the same principle as the calliope.
“You know the mechanical era was based on all those gears moving things," Daniel says. "A car is the same thing. A lot of things seem so mysterious. And the truth is, when I am pushing you, I am doing exactly what gasoline is doing. Gasoline is exploding and then we are using that energy to push the wheels, and when those wheels turn, the car moves. And it’s as simple as that.”
There are purely economic reasons to encourage children at science fairs like this. Science education consultant Dan Scheffey says American youth lag behind their counterparts in countries such as India and China, in science, technology, engineering and math.
“What that boils down to is a shortage not only of these people being educated, but it cuts down on the ability of business to hire people and be successful here, " Scheffey says. "So businesses get outsourced. Businesses go elsewhere. So there is an imbalance that needs to be addressed.”
What also needs to be addressed, says World Science Festival co-founder Brian Greene, is scientific research to solve problems the entire planet faces, from hunger and disease to pollution and climate change.