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Mikayla Mathis, a student at Freire High School in Philadelphia, shooting a video in studio. Credit: WPSU. All Rights Reserved.

By Jamie Oberdick

The Penn State Center for Nanoscale Science recently went on a mission: To create new online content for K-12 students to learn about materials science and the impact it has on everyday lives.  

The center recently published five new DIY-at-home activities on its Mission: Materials Science website. Such work fits the center’s overall mission as a National Science Foundation (NSF) Materials Research Science and Engineering Center (MRSEC), one of 19 in the United States. MRSECs support collaborative, interdisciplinary research and educational efforts, including K-12 outreach activities such as "Mission: Materials Science."

The new activities were directly inspired by the research interests of contributing scientists, but educational needs that arose during the COVID-19 pandemic and a desire to map the mission site’s activities closer to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) created a timely opportunity to broaden the site’s initial audience. The NGSS was created by a national collaboration of educational experts to improve science education for all students, and many states have adopted it for their own standards. By including NGSS references, the site becomes a resource for educators as well as kids. 

Pulling Together The Expertise 

“During the pandemic, when in-person events with kids were not possible, the center’s Outreach Team Leader Ciera Wentworth decided to embrace the challenge of mapping and updating the site’s existing activities to the NGSS so that the content would be more easily accessible to classroom teachers,” said Kristin Dreyer, program director for education and outreach for the Center. “Her efforts included tapping NGSS and educational research experts to learn more about the standards, how to use them and why they matter.” 

Compared to the original eight activities, most of which were repurposed from prior outreach development efforts, the updated content was inspired and developed from start to finish by current researchers every step of the way. Two of the five new K-12 “DIY-at-home" activities were created by Penn State graduate students and faculty; one by researchers at North Carolina Central University, the center’s partner in the NSF’s Partnership for Research and Education in Materials (PREM) program; and two by students and a staff member at the University of Pennsylvania’s MRSEC. 

All of these included 10 new videos produced by Kristian Berg, senior producer at WPSU Penn State.  

“The website content I am most excited about is the activity that our lab made called ‘Light and Bubbles,’" Wentworth said. “It will be really cool to see our activity up on the website in its final form after going through the process of creating it, testing it and refining it. I am also excited about all of the video content that will be added to the website that WPSU filmed and created. It will allow visitors of the site to meet the scientists and see us in action.” 

In addition, the center worked with a long-standing partner, the Franklin Institute (TFI) in Philadelphia, and another new local science museum partner, Discovery Space of Pennsylvania. TFI’s relationship with the center began in 2001 and includes the past development of six sets of hands-on, interactive, materials-related  tabletop activities. Eventually, this same interactive approach was applied to the virtual platform of Mission: Materials Science, but engaging local audiences via in-person programming remains an important priority. 

‘Put Materials Science In The Hands Of Kids'

“The Franklin Institute has been collaborating with Penn State’s Center for Nanoscale Science for over 20 years, demonstrating how university researchers and science museums can bring together cutting-edge research and expertise in STEM learning to engage public audiences of all ages,” said Jayatri Das, chief bioscientist at TFI. “For Mission: Materials Science, our team brought this expertise to put materials science into the hands of kids — guiding development of DIY activities that empower kids to explore, test and discover surprising properties of everyday materials at home and make connections to real-world innovation at Penn State and other universities.” 

TFI played a key role in facilitating the new Mission: Materials Science digital-content development approach by providing informal science education training to researchers via its Science Engagement Institute program, a new customized online seminar and workshop series which teaches researchers how to create, present and evaluate engaging and effective outreach activities for youth. 

“Many children turn away from STEM because they do not see themselves as scientists. Therefore, it is important for students of all ages to see and interact with actual scientists.”  Brooke Bernardoni, science instructor, Discovery Space

According to Das, she is most excited about how the updated content will not just teach students, but also teach scientists how to communicate their work to young people. 

“With this new content, we trained our scientist partners to think about the core concepts of their science, how to translate them into inquiry-driven activities, and how to test, problem-solve, and improve their activities based on feedback from kids,” Das said. “I’m excited that we’ve now equipped these scientists — especially those just starting their careers — with the skills to build education and outreach into how they do science in the future.” 

The Mission: Materials Science content is part of a new partnership between the Center and Discovery Space, and holds benefits for both entities, according to Brooke Bernardoni, a science instructor with Discovery Space.  

“It gives many opportunities for the center’s outreach team to work directly with K-12 students,” Bernardoni said. “Additionally, it provides Discovery Space with numerous diverse science experts to enhance the programs we provide to students. Many children turn away from STEM because they do not see themselves as scientists. Therefore, it is important for students of all ages to see and interact with actual scientists. This is the greatest benefit of the partnership between the Penn State MRSEC and Discovery Space.” 

The Challenge Of Shooting Videos During A Pandemic 

Production of the videos was a major part of the project, including five scripted activities videos presented by kids from TFI’s STEM Scholars program, and five documentary profiles of graduate students in different materials science labs.  

“Each of the activities was developed in partnership with the grad students and related to a science principle connected to a particular lab's research,” Berg said. “For instance, a discovery of structural color in oil droplets by members of the Zarzar lab at Penn State inspired an activity that explains the shifting, iridescent colors seen in soap bubbles.” 

Creation of the videos began in 2020, but filming became a challenge when the pandemic hit.  

“We wrote the scripts with two or three kids on camera so that they could play off each other and, because they were amateurs, so they could break up the burden of communicating the science,” Berg said. “We cast four young people and then the pandemic hit. How would we finish the project if we couldn't be in the same room with people?” 

Faced with this challenge, Berg and the Mission: Materials Science team had to get creative. They eventually produced a few ways around the required social distancing. 

“Thankfully, things began to open up a little, but pandemic protocols meant we had to shoot each kid separately on different days, with masked staff people feeding lines off camera and me directing the shoot via FaceTime,” Berg said. “Then, cutting them together as if they shot it standing next to each other. The grad student portrait documentaries were also shot with distanced and masked crews with me conducting the out-of-town interviews over FaceTime.” 

What’s Next 

For the near-term into 2022, Discovery Space will provide in-person opportunities for center graduate students to promote the site’s activities and engage with K-12 students as they guide youth visitors through the hands-on content. The materials science content of the Mission: Materials Science site will also reach the formal classroom through several existing teacher professional development efforts, such as the center’s summer Research Experience for Teachers (RET) program and a virtual teacher workshop program hosted by the Cornell MRSEC. 

“Along with the great activities, I love that Mission: Materials Science introduces kids to real people doing science.”  Jayatri Das, chief bioscientist, The Franklin Institute

Discovery Space will soon replace TFI as the primary lead on future content development, but TFI will continue to serve as a consultant and the center’s informal science education training provider. Another new set of materials science-focused activities for K-12 students will begin development in 2023. 

“Along with the great activities, I love that Mission: Materials Science introduces kids to real people doing science,” Das said. “There are lots of videos on the site that help kids do the activities and learn about materials research, and none of the people featured are actors. Kids get to see other kids from the Franklin Institute’s youth programs, along with students, faculty, and staff from Penn State and other universities.  

“It’s a wonderfully diverse group of people that helps kids see the human face of science and envision a place for themselves in the field.” 

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