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Pied-Piper of Science Leads Kids to Lab

A New York chemist helps schoolchildren roll up lab-coat sleeves and ... experiment

Charles Scaife is visiting Elm Drive Elementary here, a brick building filled with art work and, from his perspective, children in need of a few interesting science experiments.

Blowing through a straw in Sally Knapp's class of first-graders, he is turning an acid-based liquid from lavender-colored to clear as his carbon dioxide bubbles through it.

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"Cool," says William Strayer, a six-year-old. "I love experiments."

That's the whole idea for Mr. Scaife - to get elementary schoolchildren and their teachers excited about "doing" science.

For the past three years, Scaife has taken it upon himself to become a one-man science fair, traveling around the Northeast on his days off, conducting experiments that illustrate the effects of temperature and pressure, how to make a polymer, and chemical reactions. He uses everyday items, like soda cans he finds as he walks to his "real" job as a chemistry professor at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y.

Since he started working with schoolchildren in 1994, he estimates he has reached 900 teachers and about 25,000 students. Moreover, he does it all for the cost of his expendable supplies.

Scaife says he tries to take advantage of a youngster's natural sense of curiosity. He believes that children make up their minds about science as early as grade school. "Unfortunately, they are making negative decisions - we need to counter that."

Gerry Wheeler of the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA), says this is particularly true for young girls and minorities. "Trying to get them back is more difficult than keeping them interested," he says.

Part of the problem is the dry method of teaching science, says Daniel Goldin, administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. "We can't just give them theoretical problems. We have to give them real science problems."

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Indicators abound that "hands-on science" is lagging nationally. In May, the Edcuation Department reported that students who took the 1996 National Assessment of Educational Progress hands-on science test had difficulties. Fourth-graders were asked to use a pencil to test fresh and salt water by determining what fraction of the pencil floated above water. About 25 percent could distinguish salt water from fresh and give an explanation. Among eighth graders, 40 percent carried out the measurement.

Keeping kids engaged

In a technological society, says NSTA's Mr. Wheeler, it's vital that children become adept at hands-on science. "It's not that we are trying to make it a world of scientists, but we want to make sure they don't shut down in this technological world."

Such hands-on learning, says Education Secretary Richard Riley, "unleashes the creativity of our young people and gets them excited about science."

That's just what Scaife is trying to do.

He got the idea after the Challenger space shuttle tragedy in 1986. He and a student had a crystal-growing experiment that was on the doomed craft. After the accident, elementary schools wanted to hear from anyone associated with Challenger, and he was asked to speak to students and teachers.

"When I did, I saw so many of the teachers were afraid of science," says Scaife. "If they were not afraid, they were uncomfortable since they had never taken much [science] themselves."

Scaife has found a great hunger, particularly among children, for hands-on science experiments. One indication of the national interest is the success of the show, "Bill Nye, the Science Guy," which airs weekdays on public television. About 2 million children tune into the show each week to watch a bow-tied actor go to great lengths to illustrate science principles. The fast-paced show has plenty of "try this" segments that anyone can do.

This is also one of the hallmarks of Scaife's science days. Scaife and his wife, Priscilla - attired in white lab coats decorated with colored balloons, red hearts, and chemical formulas - travel to schools that invite them. During the day, they visit classes and conduct experiments, such as the "Huggie experiment" in which he fills a diaper with water to show students how a polymer works.

After class is over, he meets with teachers to show them some easy experiments they can do and to try to bolster their confidence. He recommends experiments that are simple but that result in surprise for the children. He shows teachers how to make helicopters, using just paper and a paper clip. The rotors turn clockwise. "Now, how do you think you get them to turn the other way?" he asks the teachers, who ultimately figure it out.

Clorox bottles and tubing

Most of his experiments use easy-to-get items. In one experiment, he uses a Clorox bottle and tubing to show how siphons work. "One of a teacher's concerns is, how am I going to have time to do all this? Who is going to get it ready for me?" he says.

Scaife tries to get parents, too, involved in their children's science education. At Elm Drive Elementary here in Millbrook, N.Y., he sets up experiments on tables in the school cafeteria for an evening of science.

Part of the goal is to foster parent-child communication. "Last year," remembers Scaife, "a dad came up and said, 'This is the most interactive time I've ever had with my daughter. Usually we go to the movies, sit in the dark, and we don't talk.' "

That theme holds true this evening, as well. Joe Bocchino, here with his daughter, Briana, says, "I don't do that much with her. I saw this as a chance to change that."

Another dad, Michael Pace, watches as his twins, Nathan and Natalie, make a paste of cereal and water. As they put a magnet in the concoction, small pieces of iron cling to it.

"This is the kind of thing you wish the kids would do everyday," says Mr. Pace.

That is Scaife's goal.

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