This summer, our NSF-funded center for solar-energy research joined forces with a local high school and a local science club to create a new program for informal science education in western Los Angeles. I serve as the coordinator for Caltech’s participation in the program, which involves helping to plan and run science club meetings every other Saturday for 8-to-14 year-olds at a housing unit on the west side of Los Angeles. We structure our meetings less like a class and more like a club by favoring the use of hands-on activities where the kids can actively discover the concepts we wish to teach (and have lots of fun at the same time).
As you might expect, one of my primary concerns has been making sure the kids run these activities safely. When designing experiments, there are a number of top-level considerations that go into addressing safety. First, we avoid designing any experiments with serious hazards—we don’t use especially toxic chemicals and we limit the scale of our activities to small volumes. Second, we have a fabulous team of “near-peer” mentors from the high school and Caltech who make sure that the kids aren’t performing any unauthorized experiments (like tasting the chemicals we use). Finally, we are actively working on building good habits with respect to personal protective equipment (PPE).
Before Caltech joined the program, the kids already had a shared set of goggles for general use when activities warranted. One of the first events we organized for the club was a field trip to Caltech to tour the school and see what we “real scientists” do in the lab. Before they came into my room to see a few demonstrations, I gave them a quick version of my lab accident story along with the requisite speech on the importance of wearing goggles when in laboratory. With this story freshly in mind, they all lowered their goggles over their eyes and marched in (see photo, above).
Sadly, despite my impassioned plea, it took all of two minutes before some of them started moving their goggles up to their foreheads. Two minutes! I know goggles are a drag—they can feel tight, fog up, and block your vision—but I was hoping for a little more after my attempt to scare them straight.
One of the most important things I’ve learned from my involvement in the new program is that it is really, really hard to get kids to pay attention to you. If you try to lecture them about a concept, you’ve got about ten seconds before their eyes start wandering across the room. It’s far better to get them learning concepts by running experiments and/or having them ask and answer questions. Kids at this age are not especially concerned about what you want them to do—they seem to do what they want to do.
And I think that was part of the problem with the goggles. We wanted the kids to wear them, but that missed the point. What would make the kids want to wear them? Obviously, a cautionary tale about preserving their eyesight in the unlikely event of an accident was not enough.
I thought we needed to do a better job of making eye protection cool/fun, so first, we ordered them some safety glasses like “real scientists” wear (for general use) in lab. I bought three varieties of glasses from my favorite safety company. Each pair was only about $2—well worth the investment. At the next club meeting, we let the students choose what model and color they wanted. (To my surprise, the boys all wanted red frames while the girls opted for the black or clear frames.) Finally, in order to let the kids establish a personal connection to their PPE, we brought some knickknacks to let them personalize their glasses. These included rolls of colored tape and packets of jewel stickers that the kids could use to “bling out” their frames. This model had particularly wide frames that gave the kids a bunch of space to decorate.
Right after the decoration activity, we performed our most demanding (and fun) activity to date: making glow sticks from scratch. I don’t think I saw a single kid remove his/her glasses during the experiment. We’ll keep monitoring the situation in the future, but I think we’ve made some headway.