Science outreach Part 2: When bat-signals, ‘sheepdog’ donkey, Tuxedo Pandas and ferrofluid came together


That (paraphrased) conversation above was one of the many we had at the first Virginia Science Festival. It was a week-long celebration of science (October 4-11), spread across Virginia. Virginia Tech hosted the first day of the science exhibitions on October 4. Visitors poured into the gorgeous Moss Arts Centre soon after we set up the VTSuN booth. In his opening speech at the Cube, President Timothy Sands surprised and delighted us with a demonstration of light emitting diodes (LEDs), as he walked us through the history of LED technology. Actual hands-on science in an inaugural speech – who would have thought?

Moss_Arts_Centre_Dr_Sands(Left) The Moss Arts Centre at Virginia Tech. (Right) Dr. Timothy Sands demonstrating a LEDs using a red traffic light at the Cube.

At the VTSuN booth, the flow of visitor’s, the questions and the energy increased as the day progressed. Our visitors explored the surface area, hydrophobicity and ferrofluids through hands-on experiments and demonstrations. One of first visitors was Mason Sizemore, who turned ten that very day and was celebrating his birthday by visiting the Science Festival and soaking everything in. “Chemistry is my thing.”, said Mason, after doing a surface area experiment involving an iron nail, some iron filings and Sprite. (Here’s a demo of a similar experiment   [~6 min].)

young_visitors(Left) 10-year old Mason. Chemistry is his thing. (Right) Trevor watches as his brother Colin plays with ferrofluid. “Why does it get spiky like that?”

But our real crowd-puller was the magnetic ferrofluid. Mason was soon followed by a duo of brothers, Trevor (age 7) and Colin (age 4). Trevor initially went for the Sprite experiment, but was soon hooked on the ferrofluid when Colin started playing with it. I can go on endlessly about ferrofluids, but instead, I submit to you this magic of soap bubbles, capillary action, magnetism, music and, of course, ferrofluid:

Turn the volume up and watch in full-screen mode. Hold on to thy jaw, for it shall drop. (Artist: Kim Pimmel)

Coffeemug took a break from the VTSuN booth and wandered about wide-eyed through the exhibition. You could see the exhibits from NASA, meet the Tuxedo Pandas building their robots, the Physics team breaking racquet-balls dipped in liquid nitrogen, the College of Science group arm-wrestling for science. You could also visit the Bat-Signaling booth and learn about echolocation. (The same echolocation that the MUTOs communicated by, and apparently, Godzilla was into it as well.) The Bat-signaling booth had specimens of bats in jars (shudder), right next to another booth titled Roachzilla (panic). I backed away slowly and weaved my way through the crowd of visitors to meet Fiona, the burro who lives with a herd of cattle and guards over them, just like a herding dog.

are_wrestle_2_panels(Left) VTSuN Associate Director, Dr. Nina Vance giving it all. (Right) Trying to break the vacuum. In both events, science won. (Coffeemug bravely cowered behind the camera and stayed out of the action. Note to self: Need to get myself  some weights. Or gamma rays.)

 Coffeemug returned to the VTSuN booth was soon talking to 8-year old Bella about our other attraction – the hydrophobic Magic Sand that refused to get wet despite being dunked in water. After coffeemug finally convinced her that hydrophobic effect is a good thing (hydrophobic comic books won’t get soaked in the rain), Bella decided that if she had hydrophobic superpowers, she would make her clothes water-repellent. “Mommy wouldn’t know when I get wet playing with the sprinklers turned on”. She then proceeded to explain her diabolical plan to her younger sister and then realized “but my hair and skin would still be dripping wet, and Mommy would wonder what I have been up to”. Busted. So close.

But Bella was not impressed initially:

Conversation2_bellaWhy do you ask such questions to me? I’m just a coffeemug…

Conversations: Visitors to our booth came for the ferrofluid, the magic sand that you couldn’t get wet and the Sprite experiment, but stayed for the conversation. Conversations about how nanotechnology helps vending machines tell the difference between a one-dollar bill and a five-dollar bills. Conversations about how suspensions of gold nanoparticles look like pomegranate juice and those of silver nanoparticles resemble goat milk, and how the ferrofluid looked like “that alien life form from the X-files” (had to look that one up). A couple with two kids asked whether inhaling or ingesting silver nanoparticle-based products will turn us blue, whether the iron nanoparticles in dollar bills can leach out, and how scientists decided if silver nanoparticles in throat sprays and teddy bears were safe. We agreed that in some cases where the antimicrobial property is urgently needed (e.g., bandages to treat burn victims), silver nanoparticles may be a great idea, but they left the booth saying they won’t be buying nano-silver T-shirts and socks anytime soon. At the heart of all of these conversations I sensed engagement, participation, and an attitude that said “I’m interested. Show me.”

Nearly 6000 science-lovers visited the Moss Arts Centre that day. The VTSuN booth got a lot of traffic. Many of the young visitors at the VTSuN booth left with free copies of Nanooze to read more about the world of nano. Before we knew it, it was 4 pm – time to pack up. But the Virginia Science Festival had only begun.

Why I go to these outreach events: Doing science is hard. By focusing too much on the endless stream of academic papers, the long hours in the lab spent exorcising trouble-shooting the poltergeist-haunted malfunctioning instruments, debugging those knotty codes and models, stressing over the looming deadlines, the rejections, the disappointments and the daily failures of PhD research – we might forget why we do what we do. But sometimes all it takes is sharing a 4-year old’s fascination for ferrofluid, to see things with fresh eyes, recalibrate, recharge and refuel. That’s the selfish but honest reason why I volunteer at such outreach events – to replenish myself. To kneel next to an 8-year old trying to get hydrophobic sand wet, to stir up some green glue with a shy third-grader and be reminded of why I am lucky to have a crumpled, stained lab-coat instead of a tailored business suit as my daily wear.

I will bring this meandering train of thought to its final station in Part 3. Meanwhile, enjoy the slideshow below. (Here’s Part 1 if you missed it.)


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