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   from the issue of February 15, 2007

Annual UNL, LPS program offers science experience to fifth-graders


Ben Hartzell is in school six days a week and savoring every Saturday of it.

SCIENCE SATURDAY - UNL undergraduate Ann Langemeier (second from left) helps Lincoln Public Schools students (clockwise, from far left) Ben Hartzell...
 SCIENCE SATURDAY - UNL undergraduate Ann Langemeier (second from left) helps Lincoln Public Schools students (clockwise, from far left) Ben Hartzell, Alex Pytlik Zillig and Megan McCashland build a dipole electroscope during the Feb. 10 Science Saturday in Ferguson Hall. Photo by Troy Fedderson/University Communications.

A budding engineer, Hartzell is one of 105 Lincoln Public Schools fifth graders taking part in Saturday Science at UNL. Organized by the Department of Physics and Astronomy, Saturday Science is an outreach program started in 1974 and designed to ignite the elementary students' interest in science.

"My mom and I joke that I go to school six days a week now, but it's pretty cool to me," Hartzell said. "This is a great program. I get to learn new things about science and it challenges me."

Saturday Science is every Saturday in February, with the fifth-graders divided into morning and afternoon sessions. Each session is two hours - the first hour spent as a group in an interactive lecture in Behlen Laboratory; the second in small groups for hands on experiments in Ferguson Hall.

Experiments on Feb. 3 balanced on tops and things that spin, followed by electricity and magnetism on Feb. 10. For the final two Saturdays, students will explore telescopes, then lights and lasers.

"As a teacher, I'm not here looking for the next big thing, the next Nobel Prize winner," said Cliff Bettis, a research associate professor in Physics and Astronomy who has organized Saturday Science for the last 16 years.

"Saturday Science is about showing these kids that this is something they can do and pursue. It's about the importance of getting them excited about science early on and making them feel the university is an interesting place to go," he said.

The program was started by Duane Jaecks, emeritus professor, in spring 1974. At the time, Jaecks had two daughters in Lincoln elementary schools and thought they could use a unique science experience.

"My feeling was, and this has changed since, that LPS wasn't teaching science in a manner that stimulated curiosity and interest," Jaecks said. "I started thinking about ways to get my kids interested and this thing just sort of came up."

Though initially hesitant, LPS officials agreed to a one-year trial run. Jaecks remembers roughly 100 fifth graders signing up for the first spring sessions.

"It turned out that Saturday Science was quite popular," Jaecks said.

Today, enrollment is limited to about 100 students each year. The cap allows for one-on-one interactions between the fifth graders and the UNL faculty, graduate students and undergraduates who guide the weekly experiments.

ROUND AND ROUND - Sophia Baillie uses a magnet to guide a paperclip around a maze she drew on a paper...
ROUND AND ROUND - Sophia Baillie uses a magnet to guide a paperclip around a maze she drew on a paper plate. The Feb. 10 Science Saturday event featured electricity and magnetism. Photo by Troy Fedderson/University Communications.


"This is not a first come first serve program," said Lois Mayo, science curriculum specialist for LPS. "Demand is high, with about 300 applications per year. So, we set a cutoff date and the day after that we hold a drawing to determine who gets to attend."

Cost for students is $30, with scholarships available for families that qualify.

"This is really a very important program for our students," Mayo said. "They get the opportunity to learn important concepts in physics and interact with university students and faculty. And, it gets them thinking about possible careers in science."

Guiding a paper clip through a circular maze with a magnet during the Feb. 10 Science Saturday, fifth-grader Sophia Baillie said the program has added fuel to her early career choice.

"I've always wanted to be a geologist and in two weeks of Saturday Science I've learned that that is a goal I can achieve now," Baillie said. "This is really a great opportunity because I get to learn about things that we don't do in school. And, it's a lot of fun."

Roger Kirby, chair of the department, said department-wide support is the reason for the success of the program.

"Saturday Science has been broadly supported within the department, with many faculty making presentations, designing hands-on activities, etc.," Kirby said. "And, we have may graduate and undergraduate students helping with the activities and building things for the labs. And, our lab managers have also made significant contributions."

Four UNL professors have led the program - Jaecks, Edward Schmidt, Kirby and Bettis. They have been assisted by two lab managers - Vicki Plano Clark and Shawn Langan.

"It really is a fair amount of work to pull this together each year, but it is worth it," Bettis said.

"I was judging a district science fair a few years ago and these girls came running up to me saying, 'Teacher, teacher, come look at our project," Bettis said. "I remembered them from Saturday Science and let them know it wasn't a project I was judging. But, they didn't care. They just wanted me to see it.

"These kids have endless enthusiasm for science and discovery. And, it's exciting that UNL can be a part of that."



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