Legos and leaves help inspire children to learn science during AAAS event

February 21, 2013

Denise Brehm
Civil & Environmental Engineering 

CEE students used Legos, straws and leaves to inspire youngsters at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Family Science Days Feb. 16-17, part of the organization’s annual meeting held this year at the Hynes Convention Center in Boston. A book co-authored by Professor Penny Chisholm also played a role, winning the AAAS/Subaru SB&F Prize for Excellence in Science Books in the children’s science picture book category. 

Two exhibit booths were organized by juniors Tara Soni and Therese Santiano-McHatton, the former and current presidents of the MIT student chapter of the American Association of Civil Engineers. The booths offered interactive, educational demonstrations of photosynthesis (sponsored by Chisholm’s lab) and the properties of materials at different scales (sponsored by Professor Markus Buehler’s Laboratory for Atomistic and Molecular Mechanics). 

Chisholm’s book, Ocean Sunlight: How Tiny Plants Feed the Seas (Blue Sky Press, 2012), which was co-authored and illustrated by Molly Bang, was displayed at these booths as well. 

Professor Jesse Kroll's research group in atmospheric chemistry staffed a booth (in collaboration with Kathleen Vandiver and the MIT Center for Environmental Health Science) that taught visitors to use Lego bricks to model the composition and relative quantity of molecules in air, and the complete and incomplete combustion of a hydrocarbon fuel. The goal of these activities was to teach participants the origin of air pollutants such as carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and particulate matter. Kroll's group also demonstrated sensors they use in their research to detect particulate matter in the atmosphere. 

“We had about 200 people visit the Lego air pollution booth, including 100 participants age six to 14, who filled out surveys highlighting the cool new things they learned about air and air pollution,” said postdoctoral associate Eben Cross, who co-led the exhibit with Vandiver. “Many of the parents hovering in the background told me that our booth was one of the best. That is a direct result of our students’ enthusiasm and teaching skills. We’re really proud of them.” 

According to the AAAS, there were 70 booths, 48 exhibiting organizations and about 3,650 people registered for Family Science Days, despite a snowstorm that weekend. This number doesn’t include AAAS meeting attendees and reporters, many of whom also visited the children-oriented exhibits.

Other CEE community members staffing the booths, in addition Santiano-McHatton and Soni, included postdoctoral associate Ellie Browne; graduate students Kelsey Boulanger, Dieter Bresnan Brommer, Kyle Delwic, Leon Dimas, Tristan Giesa, Siavash Khosh Sokhan Monfared, Anna Tarakanova, Jessie Thompson; and undergraduates Teri Oehmke, Sid Pai, Jessica Parker, Marcela Rodriguez, Alex Severt and Marisa Simmons.

See a photo album of the event on Facebook.