Want kids to love science? Throw in some marshmallows.
At Gulf Beaches Elementary School last week, 11-year-old Sierra Tishkof dropped five marshmallows into a small plastic bottle and screwed on an air pump. At the direction of two University of South Florida St. Petersburg students, she pushed air in.
The marshmallows shrank.
"Oh, my God!" she said.
Seconds later, Sierra unscrewed the pump and — foomp — the pressure-packed marshmallows puffed up again.
Suddenly, science was as cool as the skull prints on Sierra's baseball cap.
About 100 other students at the St. Pete Beach school had the same giddy experiences at Family Fun Science Night, organized by a class of future teachers from USF St. Petersburg.
The class' mission: to chip away at the perception that science is technical, abstract, yawn.
As moms and dads watched, students whirled pennies inside balloons, poked pencils through bags of water and made raisins dance in a fizzy brew of water, vinegar and baking soda.
No one was quizzed, but behind a dozen demonstration tables, science lurked. The power of air pressure. Physical reactions and chemical reactions. Centripetal force versus centrifugal force.
"There's such an emphasis on the fun side that it allays the fears of the parents about whether they're going to have to explain all of the science side to their children," said Malcolm Butler, a USF St. Petersburg professor of science education who led the family night effort.
Pinellas students can use all the help they can get. Last year, 41 percent of fifth-graders scored at grade level or higher on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test in science (2 percentage points below the state average). The test is given to students in grades 5, 8 and 11.
Even more troubling, only 13 percent of black fifth-graders in Pinellas County scored at grade level or higher. (Statewide, the figure is 22 percent.) At Gulf Beaches, only 3 percent of black fifth-graders did.
It's not just kids who are befuddled. A national survey released last month showed that only 53 percent of adults know how long it takes for the earth to revolve around the sun (answer: 365 days), and only 59 percent know that humans and dinosaurs did not live at the same time.
Events like family science nights are meant to be ice-breakers for them, too.
"The biggest thing we want families to have an understanding of is, science is all around us," said Julie Poth, Pinellas' supervisor of elementary science. "They don't have to be science experts. They just have to encourage their kids to be curious and ask questions."
Science matters more than ever. Kids need to be scientifically savvy to compete for jobs against their peers from around the world. They need to be scientifically literate to decipher everything from global warming to limits on lawn watering.
The littlest kids love science; they dig it when earthworms wriggle and lima beans sprout, Butler said. But around the approach of middle school, science "becomes more of 'define the boldface words in the textbook' and 'memorize this,' " he said.
It doesn't have to be that way. Butler said that when he taught high school physics, he took his students to the ballfields to see Newton's laws of motion in action. One year, his students watched one of their classmates, a pitcher for the softball team, strike out a star hitter on the baseball team. Then they dissected why the physics of an underhanded pitch threw the batter for a loop.
At Gulf Beaches, students lined up to stick their hands in bins full of squishy, colored "crystals."
"They love them," said Katie Meyer, 22, a senior in elementary education at USF St. Petersburg, explaining that the crystals are water-absorbing polymers used in gardens — but punched up with food coloring. "They're ooey and they're colorful and (the kids) get to play with them."
Hands-on makes all the difference, said Corey Redmond, who was at science night with his daughter, Hannamarie, a kindergartener.
"For me, hands-on was the only way you could keep my attention," said Redmond, 30, who restores old British cars for a living. "In class, I'd be like, ohhh," he said, as he turned his face to the ceiling and made his eyes wander.
His daughter is the same way, he said. Try to explain a concept to her, and eyes glaze. But put something in her hand …
Just then, Hannamarie walked up.
"Here Daddy," she said. "A marshmallow."
Ron Matus can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8873.