HARTFORD, CT, July 5, 2012 – It was a little more than a year ago that Trinity and the Hartford Public School system signed a historic pact, resulting in the creation of a new grade 6 through 12 academy at the Learning Corridor that would emphasize college preparedness as well as the sciences and the visual and performing arts.
Called the Hartford Magnet Trinity College Academy, it has succeeded in melding the talents of faculty members from the magnet school and Trinity to produce a challenging curriculum and push the students along the road to discovery. This summer’s first HMTCA summer science workshop has done just that, with rising sophomores having watched so-called elephant’s toothpaste smoke and foam, balanced tennis balls on top of teetering towers constructed with drinking straws, figured out what puts the glow in glow sticks, and tested soil samples to see if a former bus depot is contaminated with metal. (It is!)
Attendance at one of the two-week science sessions (morning or afternoon) is mandatory, just as 9th graders must attend a writing skills workshop in order to maintain their spot in the award-winning magnet school.
The goal of the science workshops – which ran from June 18 to June 29 and will run again from July 9 to July 20 -- is to expose the 100 or so sophomores to authentic research and role models in science and to get them excited about doing science and pursuing careers in science.
“I would hope that they’re getting a better understanding of what science is about,” said Trinity student Airelle James ’14, who is participating in the program. “It’s certainly more exciting than looking at a textbook. They are getting to do hands-on experiments.”
James and other Trinity students are assisting HMTCA science teachers Jared Lewis and Saam Dilmaghani; Penny Parmelee, the HMTCA science curriculum coach; and Alison Draper, director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Science at Trinity. They, in turn, are being aided by community partners, such as Dean Iaiennaro, director of Real Estate Development for the Southside Institutions Neighborhood Alliance (SINA), who spoke to the students about soil contamination.
Draper noted that the students who participated in this year’s Interdisciplinary Science Program at Trinity spent a lot of time in the fall thinking about the summer science workshop.
“Their ideas formed the basis of the workshop and they’ve been terrific to work with and engaged partners in the process,” said Draper. “In moments in which we’ve needed an extra activity, they’ve stepped up to lead the workshop students in some friendly scientific competition.”
One of the first experiments that the students was exposed to was the creation of what is commonly referred to as elephant’s toothpaste because of its foamy appearance and the huge quantity that is produced, which is enough to brush the teeth of even the largest pachyderm. Once the students had donned goggles to protect their eyes, Lewis combined hydrogen peroxide with water and potassium iodide, chemicals that are not readily available to the public. The students saw the solution sizzle and smoke, producing heat and foam.
The point of the experiment was to show how sodium iodide acts as a catalyst, which speeds up the decomposition of hydrogen peroxide. And when the latter decomposes, it breaks down to form water and oxygen. The soap bubbles that erupt from the cylinder are filled with oxygen and as the reaction takes place, steam rises from the erupting foam. It was a sight that had the students oohing and aahing.
Following the experiment, the students heard from Lorenzo Sewanan ’12, a Trinity student who graduated in May with a double major in physics and engineering. Sewanan, originally from Surinam, is headed to Yale University in the fall, where he will pursue an M.D. and Ph.D. in biomedical engineering.
Sewanan said he wanted to inspire the students with his life story and share his dreams – which were to get good grades in high school, be admitted to a selective college and work really hard so that someday he “would be able to understand really complicated stuff” such as “how does your heart work and how does your brain work.”
Draper described Sewanan as “a masterful guest speaker,” one “who took command of the room, encouraged students to participate and inspired them with his own personal story.”
After his talk, the last activity on this particular day was a straw tower competition in which the students were encouraged to design and build the tallest and strongest tower possible using only plastic drinking straws and tape. The tower had to be able to support a tennis ball. It was a task that tested the students’ imagination, ability to work as a team and engineering skills. In the end, not many of the towers were strong enough to support the ball, but the students appeared to have fun trying.
During the second week of the first workshop, this particular group of students were instructed to take soil samples from an undeveloped site at the Learning Corridor that once served as a bus depot and repair facility. The point of their research was to determine whether the soil was contaminated and needed to be remediated before apartments could be built, and also to teach the students that elevated levels of certain metals were harmful.
The students took 12 samples, which were then tested for cadmium, cobalt, lead, nickel and zinc. The soil was analyzed at Trinity using inductively coupled plasma spectroscopy, a type of mass spectroscopy that is capable of detecting precise amounts of metal. The students discovered that the only metal that exceeded safe regulatory limits was lead, which can cause a host of health problems.
The HMTCA students were then divided into teams and required to do a PowerPoint presentation for their guests, which was the culminating event of the two-week workshop. Although the students were put through their paces and several rounds of practice, it was worth it in the end.
“We’ve seen a lot of progress,” said Draper.
Other student projects included collecting data on rodent-proof trash containers to see if having more of them could help reduce the city’s rat population and eliminate a possible trigger of asthma; collecting macro-invertebrate samples from the Park River to assess the health of a section of the river; and using Google mapping technology to examine Hartford neighborhoods to see how far residents had to travel to buy fresh food. In areas where the distances are great, setting up farmers’ markets could be one solution to the dearth of fresh food and a help in combatting childhood obesity.
Overall, said Draper, “the HMTCA students are getting a visceral sense of how science is done – not by reading about it or being told by some expert – but by actually doing science themselves.”
View photos from the summer science workshop.