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AU's engineering outreach offers students a focus on the fun in science
7/27/11

Inamori Continuing Education/Outreach Director Marlene Wightman 'makes' ice cream.

Inamori Continuing Education/Outreach Director Marlene Wightman 'makes' ice cream.

Marlene Wightman recalls seeing young students playing in Oobleck, a cornstarch substance, during a Kazuo Inamori School of Engineering elementary school program at Alfred University.

"I had a little guy look up at me and he said, ‘You know, this is the best day of my whole life,’ " says Wightman, director of Continuing Education/Outreach.

The Inamori School conducts several outreach programs for students, all highlighting the fun in science.

Hands-on Science works with AU’s Children’s Learning Initiative to organize groups of up to 30 elementary/middle school students in after-school programs. Engineering and Materials Science Day attracts 75-120 high school juniors each year and offers $6,000, $8,000 and $10,000 scholarship opportunities. The residential Engineering Summer Institute brings 65-100 high school students to campus each summer. Participants experience a college campus and take part in hands-on lab experiments focusing on polymers and electronic ceramics.

In addition, the school often hosts community demonstrations such as a recent presentation at the USA Science and Engineering Festival at the Corning Museum of Glass, noted Wightman.

She says the engaging hands-on programs encourage science outside the classroom.

"It’s all the ‘wow’ stuff to get kids excited about science," says Wightman. "It shows them that science is fun. They can go home and show mom and dad some of the neat stuff that they’ve learned with things that you have right in the kitchen cupboard."

"It gives them the ability to make experiments they couldn’t possibly do at high school and sometimes see more sophisticated equipment," says Alexis Clare, glass science professor. "Those I have heard from have really enjoyed it."

Clare believes the programs stimulate engineering interest.

"It’s good to get more people interested in science and engineering. I think that’s where most of the jobs are going to be in the future," she maintains.

Gerald Wynick, scanning electron microscopist, says he shows students that ordinary objects aren’t so mundane under a microscope.

"Some of the kids are really amazed," he says. "They usually come out more wide-eyed than when they went in."

Wynick explains the objective is to show children of varying ages that the sciences aren’t burdensome.
"It’s a way for these students to become interested in these things by enjoying it," he says. "You don’t have to be an Einstein."

He adds that some of the participants come back as enrolled AU students, deciding to attend because of their exposure to how the programs present the sciences. The programs have "provided us with some of our best (University) students."

The Inamori School also works with area teachers to show them fun and inexpensive methods of teaching science.

"Once teachers find out we have these programs, they want to be part of it too," says Wightman.

Clare suggests: "We’ve got to get more in tune with the teachers so that we know what level the (their) students are so we know when we speak to them about something or tell them how something works that we’re not going right over their heads. Good interaction with the local teachers is really the way to go so that they know what’s here and they know they can bring the kids over."

Wightman believes the programs’ successes come from enthusiasm.

"I love working with the kids. If you enjoy what you’re doing and show your enthusiasm to the students, its contagious," she maintains.

Clare agrees that the students’ "seeing" that science is fun makes the programs successful. "It’s like giving kids big toys to play with," she says. "The kids are usually pretty excited about it and that’s good to see."

Wynick praises Wightman and Pamela Winterhalter’s efforts. Winterhalter is the Continuing Education/Outreach secretary.

"If they were not organizing it and making it operate smoothly, I don’t think the programs would be as successful as they are," says Wynick. "Their enthusiasm comes across in a big way to the recipients."