UNL, LPS program ignites interest in science

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Troy Fedderson | University Communications
UNL's Cliff Bettis demonstrates how a sudden release of carbon dioxide propels a cart during his Feb. 1 Saturday Science lecture.

Sir Issac Newton helped take nearly 160 fifth graders for a spin as the 41st year of Saturday Science opened Feb. 1 in UNL’s Jorgensen Hall.

Offered each spring since 1974, Saturday Science is organized by UNL’s Department of Physics and Astronomy and Lincoln Public Schools. The program, started by UNL’s Duane Jaecks, is designed to stoke elementary students’ interest in science while introducing them to possible research careers and UNL’s campus.

"We want to engage the kids with a bit of science and a lot of fun," said Cliff Bettis, research associate professor of physics and astronomy who has helped organize Saturday Science since 1991. "I don't expect these kids to pass a test on our topics, but we want them to remember they were involved in a scientific activity, had fun in the process and leave wanting to do it again."

Saturday Science is offered every Saturday in February, with participants divided into morning and afternoon sessions. Each session is two hours and focuses on different topics — the first hour is spent as a group in an interactive lecture; the second in small groups for hands-on experiments.

The Feb. 1 topic revolved around tops and things that spin, with Bettis leading the lecture about Newton's three laws of motion. The students will be drawn back to learn about electricity and magnetism on Feb. 8. Topics the final two Saturdays are lights, lasers and material science on Feb. 15 and sound and music on Feb. 22.

"We try to get the general ideas introduced during the lecture," Bettis said. "Then, in the labs, they apply what we talk about.

"It's a good method because we don't just tell them about Newton's third law and move on. We talk about it, then the kids go sit on a cart and get jetted across the room."

For the tops and things that spin session, the students built tops; interacted with motion detectors; crafted balance toys out of sticks, wire and metal washers; and rumbled through the first floor of Jorgensen Hall on a hover craft.

Jaecks, an emeritus professor in physics and astronomy, originally proposed the Saturday Science as a way to enhance LPS' elementary science curriculum. At the time, Jaecks had two daughters in Lincoln elementary schools and thought they would benefit from a unique, hands-on science experience.

LPS was initially hesitant about the idea, but agreed to a one-year pilot program. Roughly 100 fifth graders signed up for the initial session.

"This program has grown into a great community partnership between Lincoln Public Schools and the university," said Kirsten Smith, a curriculum specialist with LPS and Saturday Science organizer. "It really does a great job getting students excited about doing science and pursuing careers in science. Plus, it has led to other outreach opportunities between LPS and UNL.

“Really, Saturday Science has been a win-win for both of us.”

Four UNL professors have led the program — Jaecks, Edward Schmidt, Roger Kirby and Bettis.

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

More than 15 UNL and LPS volunteers assist with the program each week.

"I was judging a district science fair many 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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