Using lasers and jelly to promote young female scientists

Seattle native and Physics PhD Erica Saint Clair found that through telling story about the fictional character of Rosie’s adventures in science to her daughter, she could make the subject fun. It led to ‘Rosie’s Research’, a programme she designed which provides fun-filled science workshops for children. Now, she’s rolling out the classes in libraries, schools and astronomy labs making jelly and lasers to teach about laser optics and to encourage young girls to get excited about a field which often lack female representation. For Erica, jelly and lasers are one small step for optics, one giant leap for womankind.

Your project is all about making science fun. Is that a big challenge?

I’ve done it hands-on with the kids on my astronomy programme. I’ve been developing things for teachers to use, and my hope is that we can get it into the schools where teachers will have this new and exciting hands-on approach that the kids actually want to do. Solving the challenge is about making it about ‘the book telling me that I have to do this”.

@ Rosie's Research

Where did the character of Rosie come from?

I have a five year old daughter who loves to hear stories. So one day in the car I made up a story about a character who was using lasers to colour the moon and ‘Rosie Research’ was a character I created to help him solve the problem. That’s where the name of the project came from and it makes me try and make the point that science is about solving a mystery.

What are some practical ways you can make physics fun for young children?

We’ve done experiments with with Play-Doh and circuits making lights, and the potato battery experiment. But the most exciting thing is the laser-jello. That one is like, “Ooh wow, this is exciting! I want to do that” and so that’s why I ended up asking for grant money for that. It’s easier to get people excited by lasers and Jell-o.

Can you explain the laser Jell-o for us?

So, we make out lens out of a big vat of Jell-o, and we imagine we’re the light, running and hitting different parts of the lens. If you hit it straight on in the centre where it’s not curved, it makes it look different to if the light hits a curve.

We have red, green and blue lasers. So let’s say the building next to you is red, that means that the building is sucking in all the colour from white light. It’s eating yellow, green, blue, etc but red is its least favourite colour to eat so it spits it back out.

So we might put a red laser into red Jell-o but if you put it into green Jell-o it eats up red so it doesn’t go through it. So, put simply, whatever colour of Jell-o you are using is the colour of light you’re going to get.

@ Rosie's Research

How do you make the Jell-o lasers?

You use little cookie cutters to make Jell-o lenses. Then you take two circles and you cut both out about a quarter inch thick. You use less water so the Jell-o is really thick and it holds up, and you can move it around. Then you eat it after - and it tastes better because it’s super concentrated so it’s more sweet and sugary!

Where are the classes taking place?

Right now, we’ll be running them from daughter’s elementary school and the local library and I’m reaching out to other observatories. The first one was Star Wars themed and people loved that. We’re trying to get into as many places as possible. That could mean teaching teachers so that they can do it on their own or it might mean just running programmes.

Why is this particular to Seattle?

In the US only 6% of the kids days are spent on science for the first four years. So we ask them, why don’t you want to be in science, technology, engineering or maths? Why don’t you want to be an engineer? Why don’t you want to be a scientist? When in reality, for the first chunk of their lives we’ve haven’t been pushing it. And then we expect them to be good at it and to like it? So we’re trying to make the point that it can be fun to solve things and ask questions. How do we do research and how do we become researchers?

@ Rosie's Research

How has your experience as a woman influenced the project? A recent study showed that women with PhD’s in science and engineering fields earn a third less than male counterparts.

I have two daughters so one of the biggest motivations is getting girls into science. I faced a lot of challenges as a female physicist in the research community, especially after I had my first child while in the program. I don’t want that stigma to exist for them, and the only way to change it is to get more women engaged and excited about science. Women and girls need to see themselves as scientists just as easily as men and boys, which is why Rosie is female. The world has enough male scientist characters and role models. I do think that we let girls go by the wayside. Physics is 90% male, biology has more women, and chemistry is about 70% male. That’s my experience.

Girls are really good at science and thinking outside the box and thinking differently, but there is some kind of disconnect that happens in middle school where it’s no longer fun or cool. So if we make STEM education really fun from the get go how much further can we get them to go?

How do you hope you can incorporate your classes into the science curriculums?

Well, my daughter is doing a project on clean water next year, and it’s like, how do you design science around clean water that’s cool? Well, you can build a laser and then put it up on a wall and you can count single cell organisms eating each other. How much more exciting is that than looking at a picture of dirty water? There’s always ways and science doesn’t have to just be limited to an hour a week or whatever.

What’s next for you?

I want to continue my after-school sessions, and hopefully start training teachers and start working closely with schools. I think scientists in general are always pushing to make the social climate better for people and fix problems that they see. I want to see all our young people in STEM!

More info here

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