Mentors help students work through science projects

The long-running volunteer educational event is an experiment worth repeating.

11/04/2012 12:20 AM

05/16/2014 8:11 PM

Soliana Kahassai’s science project idea came to her because she’s a dancer.

The 14-year-old Liberty Junior High student wants to know whether all that stretching really does help a person kick higher, bend lower, reach farther.

On Saturday, she sat down before a scientist to explain her project.

“I’ll have one group of dancers, another of runners, and the third, I’ll call those the nothings because, well, they do nothing,” she says, and smiles because the stranger laughs at the word “nothings.”

“How many people will I need to test from each group?”

The stranger seated before Soliana was Lindsey Lucas, a statistician from MRI Global, who volunteered Saturday along with 45 other science experts at the University of Missouri Kansas City.

They were part of a program called Meet the Science Mentors, a once-a-year event to help students from the fourth grade through high school refine and organize their science projects.

Yes, science projects — a fun challenge for some students, scary for others.

Lucas’ group — experts in statistics — had the longest lines of parents and kids there.

“Because everybody needs to do statistics for their project and everyone is so afraid of math,” said Lucas.

Her table was where the language of math rolled around like marbles. Words like “means,” “averages,” “t-tests” and “confidence intervals.” As Lucas talked, 14-year-old Soliana’s face fell, along with the face of her father, Kahassai Haile, who shuddered and whispered: “This reminds me of when I was a boy.”

But then Lucas knew what to say. “Don’t worry. You can look all of these formulas up on Google and it’ll walk you right through it.”

She drew a graph showing Soliana how to plot out her results. Lucas cautioned her about control groups and gender biases and how important it was to keep controlled variables to learn from the changes that occurred.

“Test your people after they have been exercising, not first thing in the morning when people are stiff,” she said.

Both father and daughter were smiling. The young scientist now had a plan on how to start, and her father knew how he could help her if she got stuck. (Lucas said the family could email her with questions, too.)

About 130 students attended, from school districts as far away as West Platte and as close as Kansas City. Here were opportunities to learn how to focus their ideas, how to present their work with flair and how to see a science project as something more than an assignment to dread.

The scientists here all loved their work, whether it was showing off a piece of Mars or explaining how they use physics to build a swimming pool with a lazy river.

Scientists were categorized into botany and biology, physics and engineers. For several scientists, this program is something they look forward to each year. They get ideas, too. Kids, said one, think outside the regular box.

Or, in the vision of one student, dog bowls. Such as, would dogs eat better out of a certain color of dog bowl?

Another student’s idea brought to Lucas was: If two groups of fruit flies were fed E.coli and staph germs, would they become “gene exposed”?

“Very impressive ideas,” she said.

James Dawson, a botany professor from Pittsburg State University, was thrilled when a young girl sat at his table and told him she was working with duckweed, a plant that at its maturity could fit inside this letter “o.” “She’s thinking maybe it could be used to clean water by absorbing heavy metals,” he said. “I think it’s a great idea, one I wished I thought of myself.”

He’s been attending the mentoring program for years, he said, partly to encourage young students. And sometimes because it’s an excellent tool for scouting out new talent and finding future recruits.

“You have to begin early in encouraging science,” he said. “It’s a growing solid field to work in.”

That’s especially true in the metro, he said, where there are many science-based industries.

The program, Meet the Mentor, exists at all because of one biology teacher, Al Frisby, who back in 1984 had his own idea. Perhaps it was better to critique students not at the final judging but earlier, when the students are in the planning stages of their projects.

The teacher who has taught science for 41 years said he never tires of seeing the passion of learning take place.

He shrugged off any praise from others. Starting the mentoring program wasn’t so difficult, he said. “All I did was pick up the telephone,” and people jumped in to help.

In 1990 his idea was taken over by the group, Science Pioneers, whose website, www.sciencepioneers.org, offers science project ideas and resources for parents, teachers and students.

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