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Apprentice Programs Inspire Young Chemists, Neuroscientists, and Sports Statisticians

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Budding young neuroscientists, sports statisticians and archaeologists got the inside scoop from top scientists at the 2014 World Science Festival’s Apprentice workshops. Each 75-minute class gave students a chance to discover different branches of science, take part in an experiment or problem-solving activity, and ask the scientist/teacher questions—lots of questions—about what they learned.

Sports Statistician’s Apprentice: Bracketology was a popular morning class where basketball fans delved into the science of probability with Tim Chartier, a math professor at Davidson College, and Tanya Chartier, a math teacher. To prove just “how mad is March Madness,” the Chartiers sifted through some of the evidence: 86 percent of people fill out their brackets at work, which adds up to $175 million in lost productivity. But most of these brackets will be duds. The Chartiers demonstrated just how difficult it is to pick the winning teams through all of the tournament rounds by having each student flip a penny eight times and try to correctly guess whether the coin would land on heads or tails. One correct guess out of eight was considered average. Afterwards, students learned how to develop their own brackets using probability formulas—and create a winning lineup for next March.

Dr. Wendy Suzuki, a neuroscientist at NYU, brought students face-to-face with gray matter in Neuroscientist’s Apprentice: Dissecting Sheep’s Brains. First, the roomful of apprentices studied which parts of the human brain are responsible for different functions like sight, movement and more. After noting that exercise helps new neurons develop, Suzuki led the group in a high-energy round of aerobics, before letting them inspect the sheep brains. The excitement was palpable as the kids donned gloves and volunteers sliced through the organs to reveal the frontal lobe, hippocampus and cerebellum. Hands went up to ask Suzuki about headaches, pain centers in the brain, senses and more.

“I liked how we got to see the sheep brain and the human brain side-by-side,” said Michelle, nine, who said she wanted to be a neuroscientist when she grew up. Added Maia, seven, “I want to take the sheep brain home and freak out my little brother.”

Technologist 2

Another class of students ventured outside to Washington Square Park for Technologist’s Apprentice: Documenting the Science of New York City. NYU School of Engineering instructor Dana Karwas and urban historian Liz McEnaney are the developers behind BLDG BLOK, a mobile app that lets users submit photos and personal stories about historical New York City buildings. After accessing the app on their smartphones, the kids walked across the park and shot images of the Washington Square Arch, erected in 1892. Back in the classroom, they wrote down their thoughts about the structure and uploaded them to the app. Their collected stories will form part of an interactive library of facts and experiences that will help animate New York City’s history.

Chemist’s and Physicist’s Apprentice: The Science of Milk and Butter introduced students to the surprising science behind everyday dairy. First, NYU chemistry professor Kent Kirschenbaum posed a question to the students: What happens when we mix oil and water? The students answered that they wouldn’t mix. But Kirschenbaum showed how fat molecules and liquid molecules in milk can coexist after being smooshed together to form butter.

Each student picked up a Mason jar half filled with cream and started shaking it. First, the liquid turned to whipped cream. With additional shaking, the liquid and fats separated, forming a glob of butter swimming in buttermilk. The kids drained the buttermilk, rinsed the butter in icy water, and tasted their results on Saltines. “It’s pretty good,” said one girl, looking unsure.

Next, physics professor David Grier brought the class into the lab, where the students viewed a droplet of milk under high magnification. Grier pointed to the microscopic blobs of fat jiggling in the liquid—“like Coney Island on a hot day,” he joked—and then demonstrated how a scientist can train an infrared laser on a single blob and control its movement. It’s like a very, very small tractor beam from Star Trek, Grier said. “And according to Star Trek, tractor beams won’t even be invented until the 23rd century, so we’re already ahead of schedule.”

Danielle, a seventh-grader, attended four workshops over the course of the day. “I went to the festival last year, and this year I was not at all disappointed with the classes,” she said. “I’m interested in anatomy, so I really enjoyed Anthropologist’s Apprentice: DNA Education and Extraction [in the morning], and the sheep brain dissection. I also write, and I loved taking photos and contributing my story in the Technologist’s class. And basically, I just like butter, and that class was awesome.”

Her friends Alexandra, 14, and Katharine, 12, also found the Technologist’s Apprentice and the butter experiment engaging. “Taking photos and writing, and getting to tell people why I like these buildings, was really cool,” Katharine said. “I love to find out why things happen the way they do.”

Photo credit: Kat Long

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