Science Fair Scramble

Rachael Bonoan, a Ph.D. candidate in biology, discusses heat dissipation in honeybee hives.

Every spring, students from Tufts Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and the Tufts School of Engineering volunteer as judges at Medford High School's annual science fair. Medford High School students stand in front of their creative poster displays and answer the judges' questions about their projects, methods, and outcomes. Once the points are tallied and ribbons are handed out, students pack up their projects and usually do not explore the scientific method beyond the classroom until next year's fair.

This year, Medford High School students are getting a head start on exploring science fair projects thanks to the "reverse science fair," a new Tufts outreach program. For this special event, they get to ask the questions to Tufts graduate researchers.

The event was first proposed by chemistry Professor Charlie Sykes and Brian Mernoff, a former member of Sykes' lab who now teaches at Medford High School. Tufts chemistry outreach coordinator Karen O'Hagan and Rocco Cieri, science coordinator at Medford High School, made the outreach event a reality.

Sean McHugh, doctoral student in chemistry, shares his research on protein folding

On October 16, ten graduate students from Tufts' departments of biology, chemistry, and biomedical engineering presented their research to several Medford classes, and did their best to answer the students' challenging questions, while simultaneously cultivating a love for scientific inquiry amongst high school students.

A Teaching Challenge

For the first reverse science fair, Medford High School students were exposed to a variety of Tufts research. Rachael Bonoan, a Ph.D. student in biology, was one of the presenters. "The research I presented to the students was research I did on heat dissipation in honey bee hives," said Bonoan. "The [students] were really interested in the thermal images that I presented as a way to track heat within the honey bee hive."

Another graduate student in chemistry, Amanda Aldous, shared her project on, "constraining a natural peptide sequence and observing the effect that constraint has on structure, metal binding, and activity." Looking at a specific protein sequence called the ATCUN motif, Aldous discussed some of the properties of copper and nickel binding, and how certain peptides might lead to promising oxidation catalysts.

"The students found it interesting that solutions of copper and nickel salts change color when bound to my synthesized peptides, which is due to the change in environment around the metal upon binding," said Aldous. "I have never had such a captivated audience on the topic, and I found it very exciting and rewarding."

Chemistry doctoral student Zachary C. Smith gives a presentation on organic electronics patterning. (above photos: Alonso Nichols/Tufts University)

For this year's presenters, presenting research at an appropriate level in a timely fashion was the biggest challenge. Bonoan said, "Not only did I have to get the concepts across quickly, but I had to do so in a way that was accessible and exciting,"—elements she says she tries to incorporate in her teaching at Tufts.

For Aldous, "One challenge was to communicate graduate level chemistry to high school level students in a way they would both understand and in which they would develop questions. However, I found myself surprised at the advanced level of scientific understanding these students had." She said, "A more personal challenge was limiting my explanation in order to give students time to ask questions, which often require I summarize or exclude things I spent a long time working on and find very interesting. This was something I had not yet encountered in presenting my work via poster at local conferences and symposiums."

Brian Mernoff had a particularly unique perspective on the event as a Tufts graduate alumnus. "I really enjoy seeing the Tufts outreach programs from a teacher's point of view," he said. "It was great to see how the graduate students learned and grew during the course of the day."

Beyond the Baking Soda Volcano

In February, Tufts graduate students will return to Medford High School's Science and Engineering Fair again as judges. The reverse science fair provides an opportunity for the students to begin brainstorming their projects with a more holistic view of the value of the project. "I hope the students were able to notice aspects of the scientific method in real, everyday research projects; and realize research is a process in which you constantly go back and reevaluate your hypothesis," said Aldous.

"Students also saw how the science fair project, which they will be starting in late November, is very similar to the process which scientists actually go through, but on a shorter time scale," said Mernoff, who will be working with his students to develop their own projects for the spring fair. "Already, some of the students have mentioned that they are excited to get started, as they have now seen how the science fair is actually one of the closest things they do in high school to science in the real world," he said.

When the science fair does roll around this spring, Mernoff says he is excited that his students have already begun to form relationships with the graduate students, and "have even more meaningful conversations with the judges as they will not be strangers and will know about the judge's own research."

Science Outreach at Tufts

This event was what will hopefully be the first of many reverse science fairs organized by Tufts. The event was inspired by similar initiatives started by the Division of Environmental Biology of the National Science Foundation. Although this is the first reverse science fair held between Tufts and Medford High School, Tufts has sent volunteers to judge the school's spring science and engineering fair for many years. This new outreach event will not only improve the quality of student projects but help them to understand the value of the scientific method beyond their classroom experience.

"Giving students an appreciation for the wonders of science and how it is done is important. It prepares them to understand new scientific and technological developments that they will encounter the rest of their lives." – University Professor and Robinson Professor of Chemistry David R. Walt

Academic outreach is an important part of the graduate student experience at Tufts. Not only is it beneficial to the community we serve, it provides an essential piece of the complete education we provide.

Mernoff has an especially complete perspective now that he is hosting graduate students as a high school teacher. "During the reverse science fair, not only was I able to see where the research has gone since I left Tufts and learned some new science, but I could see how the presentations were impacting the students." In addition, he says he appreciates the opportunity to follow up with his own students after the presentations and witness the long-term impact of the event. "I have the opportunity to have discussions afterwards to see what the students learned and what they now want to learn," he said.

Aside from all of the intellectual benefits, the personal effect the event had on the students, both high school and graduate level, was very meaningful.

"It was in high school that I first started to discover the power of the scientific method," said Bonoan. "I hope the real research projects we presented, as opposed to examples in a text book, helped make the scientific method and the idea of 'science' something a little more concrete and tangible to the students."

Mernoff said the most important thing his students took away from the event was discovering what real scientists look like and what they do. "By having conversations with the graduate students, as opposed to passively listening to a presentation, the students were able to not only learn about the science, but about the personal side of the career," said Mernoff. Simply put, he said his students "saw that scientists are actually people just like them, not just 'some really smart nerds in white coats.'"