Summer Workshop Opens Eyes of City Students to World of Science

Research, Analytical Skills Part of HMTCA Science Program

HARTFORD, CT, July 23, 2013 – Jillian Mark, a rising sophomore at Hartford Magnet Trinity College Academy, aspires some day to be a veterinarian. That might seem like a lofty goal, but not to Jillian. She exudes self-confidence. And by having Jillian participate in the mandatory summer science program for HMTCA’s 10th graders, run by Trinity in conjunction with the magnet school, it’s forced Jillian to acquire a new appreciation for science and the skills she will need to achieve her career ambitions.

The program “made me see how we can all make a difference,” said Jillian, adding that “except for the homework, it was fun.”

Jillian was one of about 100 HMTCA students who were required to attend a two-week science session this summer that helped them hone their research and analytical skills as they strive to become better students and excited about the possibility of pursuing a career in science. The half-day sessions ran from June 19 through July 2 and again from July 8 though July 19, culminating each time in the students’ power point presentations describing their research and findings.

The workshop was inaugurated last summer, the result of Trinity and the Hartford Public School system signing a historic pact in 2011 that resulted in the creation of a new grade 6 though 12 academy at the Learning Corridor. The academy emphasizes college preparedness as well as the sciences and the visual and performing arts.

The first summer saw the creation of a writing skills workshop for rising 9th graders. But last summer, the program was expanded to incorporate a science component for 10th graders. Both science workshops were led by Alison Draper, director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Science at Trinity, and Penny Parmelee, HMTCA’s science curriculum coach. They were assisted this summer by Charity Smith, a special education teacher at HMTCA, and Trinity students Jeff Pruyne ’15, and Gokce Gokmenoglu ’15.

Last year the program was hosted by HMTCA, but it was shifted this summer to the Trinity campus to better orient the Hartford students to being on a college campus and having a sense of what it’s like to be a college student.

Penny Parmelee, HMTCA's science curriculum coach, showing the students how to make elephant's toothpaste.​
 “The experts, the student research, the tours of the labs all help to pique their curiosity and allow them to see things in a broader way,” said Parmelee.

Some of what the students saw was a repeat from last year, such as creating what is commonly referred to as elephant’s toothpaste because of its foamy appearance and the huge quantity that is produced by combining hydrogen peroxide with water and potassium iodide. After donning their brightly colored goggles, the students watched as the solution sizzled and smoked, producing heat and white foam.

The point of the exercise was to show how sodium iodide acts as a catalyst, which speeds up the decomposition of hydrogen peroxide. 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 chemical reaction takes place, steam rises from the erupting foam.

“We want to show the students that science isn’t scary,” said Gokmenoglu, who intends to major in neuroscience at Trinity. Pruyne said he saw his role as “helping the kids to understand that science can be a very useful thing” and serving as a resource to answer any questions that they had during the two-week program.

The main research project designed for the HMTCA students this year was to assess the health of a stream – in this case, Trout Brook in West Hartford, which is part of the Park River Watershed. To that end, the students went on a field trip to Beachland Park, where they studied the topography and plant life, and took samples of the sediment and water.

In the past, the West Hartford landfill had discharged “some really nasty stuff” into Trout Brook, leaving it with high concentrations of lead and copper.

The HMTCA students donned waterproof outfits and waded into the water, where they collected water, sediment and insect samples or macro-invertebrates, which were then preserved in alcohol.

On the penultimate day of the science session, the students worked on putting together their slide presentation entitled, “How Healthy is the Park River Watershed?” The students were paired off, each preparing bullet points that summarized their findings.

Their conclusions? There were trace amounts of lead, copper, zinc, cadmium and nickel in Trout Brook. The water was clear but foamy in some places with a slightly fishy odor. There was very little wildlife in the stream, which would suggest some pollution.

Their recommendations? Minimize the runoff from nearby roads. Reroute roads away from the stream. Investigate what’s causing the foamy water. Install more garbage and/or recycling bins. Remove pipes that may be discharging pollutants into the stream.

After several practice rounds, the students’ presentation was made on Friday to HMTCA and Trinity administrators and teachers as well as parents. The second year of the science skills workshop was deemed a success.

“It’s gratifying to give the students an experience in science that they otherwise wouldn’t have as part of their regular curriculum,” said Draper. The life skills and teamwork that they developed, she said, “will help them whether they go into science of whatever they choose to do with their lives.”