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Pre-scientists visit Northwestern!


Louisa Savereide, one of our Classroom Coordinators, went above and beyond to give the pre-scientists in Bridget Heneghan’s classroom the opportunity to see science in action – and practice being scientists themselves! – through a field trip to Northwestern University.


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Last winter, on one of the coldest days in Chicago, I put on about 7 layers of clothes and visited my pre-scientists’ classroom for the first time. Taking two different buses in -20°F weather was amazingly worth it for the opportunity to see how incredibly excited the students were to find out that their second batch of letters had arrived.  Ms. Heneghan introduced me to the class as the person who helps coordinate the LPS program at their school, and also explained that I am a scientist and grad student in Chemical Engineering at Northwestern University. The students had so many questions for me about what it is like working in a lab and what type of research I do, but also they wanted to know about nuclear fusion, robots, and many other topics I’m definitely not an expert on. I was quite surprised that the students were genuinely interested to meet a scientist, and by their intense curiosity about how the world works. Most of the people I interact with on a daily basis are scientists, and I realized that in an isolated laboratory it can be easy to lose the sense of wonder that initially inspired me to choose a career in STEM. With this in mind, I thought it would be a great experience for the pre-scientists and my fellow grad students to have the chance to meet each other by creating an LPS field trip. Ms. Heneghan agreed, and we started working together on the logistics.

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With the Women in Science and Engineering Research (WISER) group at Northwestern (of which I am a board member), I applied for a grant through The Graduate School (TGS) and was generously awarded funding for buses, snacks, and building materials for an engineering challenge.  After chartering my first yellow school bus (a surreal feeling), finding amazing grad student volunteers, and a herculean effort by Ms. Heneghan to make sure all the pre-scientists had signed safety forms, the day of the field trip arrived.

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First, the pre-scientists were split into smaller groups and led to four different research spaces- an observatory, a chemistry laser lab, a mechanical engineering lab, and a chemical engineering catalysis lab. They asked amazing questions (“So what does it really mean for a material to absorb light?”), and finally had access to experts who could answer them. The grad students were delighted by the pre-scientists’ enthusiasm. One of the students left the labs saying, “I am seeing everything differently now; even just looking at the things around me, I have so many more things I need to know!”

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Next, the pre-scientists reconvened to play a game called “MockUps” that was developed at Northwestern to help students learn about the process of designing new products. After being split into small groups of 3-4 pre-scientists plus a grad student, each team was given three criteria – a product, a user, and a constraint (for example, something to make eating more fun, that works on the moon, for adventurous preschoolers). Students sketched out designs, created a prototype of their invention, and shared with each other what they had created.

 

Next, we went outside for the pre-scientists to eat their lunches, run around, and process what they had seen and heard. Luckily, it was a beautiful day.

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Finally, the students made it back to their school bus, and I felt a huge wave a relief that we had made it through the whole morning with no one getting lost. After that, I could start to process what a wonderful day it had been.  Most of the students had never visited a research lab before (or maybe even a university campus), and it seemed like they loved it. It is such a valuable thing to be able to learn about someone else’s experiences and perspective, and I am so happy to be a part of LPS and to help facilitate this process. Many thanks again to Ms. Heneghan, the students and grad students, WISER and TGS, and the scientist pen pals of LPS for all of your contributions!

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