Monday, December 7, 2015
Here's how you turn M&M's into science careers
Written by Michael L. Diamond
The fourth graders at Highlands Elementary School put six M&M's on a paper plate. They added water. And they watched the colors dissolve.
But instead of bleeding into each other into a black pool, the colors stayed within their boundaries, forming a rainbow, and the fourth graders were in the middle of a mystery.
Why does that happen? "I don't know exactly why," the instructor, Gabrielle Cincotta, said from a laboratory in East Hanover. "The only people who know is the company that makes the M&M's."
The class was part of Students 2 Science, a nonprofit group that partners with New Jersey's technology companies and schools to train the next generation of scientists.
The goal is to plant the idea of science, technology, engineering and math careers, known as STEM, early in students' careers. It will eventually help New Jersey companies fill job openings and help the Garden State reclaim the innovation edge it once had on the rest of the world.
It can be a tall order.
Creating a passion
"You have to create the passion, but passion needs to be sustained," said Dean Paranicas, president and chief executive officer of the HealthCare Institute of New Jersey, a trade group for pharmaceutical companies. "You need mentors, the right tools, the right environment. There's a mixture you need to ensure a significant number of those students will remain in a STEM field and contribute meaningfully once they enter the work force."
Highlands Elementary School, Atlantic Highlands Elementary School and the the towns' middle school and high school, Henry Hudson Regional, are partnering with Students 2 Science this year.
On a recent fall day, Jill Puffenbarger's fourth-grade class in Highlands took their seats and watched the smartboard in front of the class. They were connected with a fourth-grade class at Atlantic Highlands Elementary School and with Cincotta, who was in a laboratory 60 miles away.
Helping out in the classrooms were scientists from International Flavors & Fragrances in Hazlet.
Cincotta explained the hour-long lesson. They would put M&M's through multiple experiments, observing how they dissolved based on the color of the shell, the number of M&M's, the water's temperature and the water's sugar content.
They learned that M&M's dissolve faster in hot water because molecules don't have a lot of energy. They learned that scientists use the same idea to figure out how medicine dissolves in the body or water dissolves rocks. And they learned that some answers – like why M&M colors don't mix with each other – remain a mystery, waiting only for a resourceful student to make a breakthrough.
The students looked energized. They worked in teams. They helped each other out and offered congratulations on jobs well done.
Enjoying the mystery
Haylee Streckfuss, 10, of Highlands, called it the best lesson about science she has ever had.
"I love science, ever since I was 7 or 6," Streckfuss said after class. "I like that it's a mystery, what you're trying to find out."
If she stays the course, Streckfuss could write her own ticket by the time she graduates. Three-quarters of the fastest-growing occupations require math or science skills. And as many as 2.4 million STEM jobs are projected to be unfilled by 2018, according to Adecco, a staffing company.
It's not a new problem.
Students 2 Science was founded six years ago by Paul Winslow, whose company had contracts with New Jersey's big pharmaceutical companies to test new drugs. He said he had trouble finding qualified workers. So after he sold the company, he founded Students 2 Science, raising money from corporations and leaning on hundreds of volunteers – active, retired and unemployed scientists – to chip in.
The program expects to reach 3,000 students statewide this year, Winslow said.
The centerpiece is a 10,000-square-foot chemistry lab with state-of-the-art instruments, where students spend a day working on real-world problems. But it recently partnered with Connectivity Inc., a technology company, allowing scientists like Cincotta to conduct virtual lessons. Schools need only an Internet connection, a laptop and a smartboard projector, Winslow said.
When the program is finished, Winslow has found that 30 percent more students show an interest in pursuing a scientific career.
"There's this tremendous mystique about science – it's too difficult, not for them, they haven't met a scientist before," Winslow said. "It just strips away all the intimidation and all the unknown. The next thing you know is you have kids saying, 'I'm smart. I can do this.' Or, 'I didn't realize what a scientist does.'"
The three schools in Highlands and Atlantic Highlands started the program this year, offering different classes for each grade through middle school, eventually culminating in a field trip by eighth graders to the Students 2 Science lab. The schools are dipping into an education foundation to pay the $5,000 that it costs for a field trip.
New standards to meet
Schools face new state standards that require students to have a better grasp of science. They need to offer more hands-on research. They're encouraged to bring in professionals. And they need to reach children whose parents might not have worked at Bell Labs or Merck, children who might not otherwise be destined for the renowned High Technology High School in Middletown or Biotechnology High School in Freehold Township.
High achievers "are going to do well in whatever high school they go to. There are decent labs here at Henry Hudson. They'll have a great experience," said Daniel Loughran, supervisor of curriculum and instruction for the Highlands and Atlantic Highlands schools. "The rest of the students who might not be honors, it's sort of (creating) a mindset they might not yet have because they haven't been in high-level labs before, and they might not have thought they could possibly engage in high-level work."
Will it work? The classroom here was focused on the task at hand.
The M&M shells had dissolved into sugary streams, each color staying in its lane. The students wanted to know why, and they raised their hands, offering hypotheses. Who knows? Maybe they were right.
Streckfuss watched from the back of the class, sometimes leaning on the edge of her chair to get a better look.
She said she wasn't too surprised by the results; she had done similar experiments with milk and food coloring at home. She thinks she might be a scientist one day.
But before this class was over, she raised her hand and asked the most important question of all.
She wanted to know: "Can we eat the leftovers in the bag?"
DO YOU WANT TO HELP?
Interested in volunteering for Students 2 Science? For information, go to www.students2science.org.
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