Thinking outside the class

Tarantulas, gooey slime, steaming brew, hair standing on endit sounds like a Halloween show a week too late, but this was the scene at the Concordia Expo-Science, in Pointe Claire last weekend.

Over 1,600 adults and kids filled the Stewart Hall Cultural Centre for the 21st edition of the annual event, as graduate and undergraduate Concordia students opened the world of science and technology to the community through demonstrations, displays, and hands-on experiments.

Kids made slime out of borax, ate ice cream made with liquid nitrogen, and harnessed electricity with their fingertips, while parents and grandparents asked questions and took pictures. A few Moms even held the tarantula.

“Bringing science down to their level through visual displays and experiments is the best way of getting kids interested in science at an early age,” said fourth-year building engineering student Catherine Lemieux.

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Their popsicle stick display bridge was a big hit. Lemieux said that although the design is very technical, the materials are something young kids can relate to. “They know they can glue popsicle sticks together, so while we don’t necessarily need to explain the theory behind it, they can connect to the visuals,” Lemieux said.

Relating to kids at an early age can help pique the interest of future Concordia recruits, and there is no better way to sell the programs then with the students, said co-organizer Cameron Tilson, who has worked at the Expo since it began in 1984.

“The students working here are the best ambassadors of the university; they are so enthusiastic and get a great opportunity to show the public what they are doing,” said Tilson, a senior planning officer in the President’s office.

Students manning the booths said showing potential recruits what it’s like to be a university science student is fun and rewarding, as it is a change from the classroom.

“Watching the kids faces when we make the ice cream is great,” said Graduate student Ann Mak.

The mass of kids around her table wide-eyed as she poured liquid nitrogen into a bowl of cream, sugar and strawberries. “And we’re allowed to make a mess, not like in the lab.”

Teaching outside the classroom is also important for the University, as it gets the word out about the programs and tunes the community into what science students are up to.

“Concordia is a true believer in outreach; education extends far beyond the Hall and Library buildings,” said co-organizer Miriam Posner, a Technical Supervisor of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry.

This type of event also provides some candid moments that don’t usually occur within the structured setting of the classroom. For example, when the rain cleared up on Sunday, mechanical engineering graduate student, Dave Morgan, treated delighted kids to a demonstration of a gas-powered Mini-Baha, a car that was designed, manufactured, and raced in the U.S. against other university students.

Curious onlookers made way as Morgan whipped the car up and down the grassy hills of the cultural centre. “It’s our chance to show it off a bit,” fellow student Evan Graham said.

This type of interaction is important; the kids are getting to see what “cool” older kids are doing, who serve as different role models than teachers.

They also get an opportunity to experiment with some dangerous stuff in a controlled environment, which is fun too, said Judy St. George, as she and her son Zachary, 11, watched a step-up transformer emit 100,000 volts of electricity in the Physics workshop.

“My son has a learning disability, and he doesn’t do that well sitting in the classroom. But he loves electricity, so this gives him a great opportunity to learn his way,” St. George said.

While many of the exhibits are staples of the Expo, the organizers try to change the program from year to year. “Next year we are hoping that athletic therapy will be able to join us,” said co-organizer Posner. Yet with all of the science workshops, psychology showing films on the main floor, and the fine arts department holding art workshops in the basement, the only problem is a lack of space.

“If the cultural centre were twice as big, there would be twice as many displays, ” said Posner.

But there are no plans to move the Expo from Pointe Claire. Dr. Robert Pallen, a former department of chemistry and biochemistry professor who passed away last year, started the venture in 1984 when he was asked by Stewart Hall to use their venue to bring science to the community. “We have been a regular part of their fabric ever since,” Posner said.

When Dr. Pallen retired from Concordia, the president’s office made sure the Expo-Science would continue, and he supplies most of the budget for it.

Although there is some cost involved, the biggest pay out is to the kids, who keep coming back year after year.

“We think it’s such a great way to get out of the house on a rainy day. It appeals to all three of our kids, ages four-11,” said Lachine resident Lynne Sinclair. “That doesn’t happen often. And it’s free!”

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