Science Saturday Inspires a Sense of Wonder to Future Rock Stars of Science

What happens when science, technology, robots and humans join hands and collaborate? A good place to get a preview is the Florida Institute for Human & Machine Cognition (IHMC) where the possibilities become endless, as room for innovation is greatly expanded through an intermingling of science, technology, human and artificial intelligence. IHMC, with offices in Ocala and Pensacola, FL, is a not-for-profit research institute of the Florida University System and is affiliated with several Florida universities. Researchers at IHMC pioneer technologies aimed at leveraging and extending human capabilities. Dr.Ursula Schwuttke, development director for the Ocala educational outreach program says the Center’s human-centered approach often results in systems that can be regarded as cognitive, or perceptual prostheses, much as eyeglasses are a sort of ocular prosthesis. “These systems fit the human and machine components together in ways that exploit their respective strengths and mitigate their respective weaknesses.”

Picture from Science Saturday
Facebook page
Given the Center’s focus on science and technology, IHMC works extensively with industry, government, educators and students to integrate and showcase science and technology as part of our everyday lives. The Center‘s community outreach efforts focus on making science more accessible to people of all ages. Part of this effort is targeted at elementary school students. In 2011-2012, IHMC started a Science Saturdays program at its Ocala location that was modeled after its very successful Science Saturdays program offered at IHMC’s Pensacola location. The emphasis of the program, according to Schwuttke “is to provide hands-on learning experiences where youth interact directly with scientists, doing enjoyable and exciting activities that engage the mind.” In Ocala, from September to May, two free Saturday sessions are offered for Marion County students, grades 3-5. These sessions are typically conducted by one of IHMC’s scientists.

“Basically we are trying to sell the concept of science as cool, and the scientist as a role model equivalent to… say, a rock star” says Schwuttke. One of the ways in which it pursues this goal is through a diverse set of presenters who are also scientists. Schwuttke says in order for students to believe that a career in science might be for them, they should be able to interact with scientists with whom they can relate, and image “being like” when they grow up. IHMC also partnered with FLATE to offer three LEGO MINDSTORMS robotics camps in summer of 2012.

The spring series, just beginning, includes a presentation on “Wind Energy” by Dr. Ursula Schwuttke, program development director at IHMC in Ocala. The presentation scheduled for Feb 2, 2013, is about design, analysis, and the scientific or engineering process, with wind energy serving as the backdrop. Then too, most of the presentations, according to Dr. Schwuttke, aren’t really about the topic. “They are about having fun with science, and giving kids the opportunity to meet real scientists.”

Picture from Science Saturday
Facebook Page
The presentation on wind energy will center on three topics. First, what is wind? What makes it happen, and why is it renewable? Secondly, participants—who are elementary aged students, will watch a brief video about wind energy that explains how the kinetic energy in wind is converted to electricity. The third component includes a hands-on activity that involves designing and building simple wind turbine blades, and testing their designs. “So far, we haven’t had any sessions that I could say were less fun, less successful, or less inspiring than any others. What they have in common is that they are all quite different, and kids keep coming back.” The hook, as Schwuttke puts it, is the hands-on activities, cool videos, inspiring photographs, and also the enthusiasm of the presenters.

“If we believe that the future of our planet is connected to wise stewardship of resources, then clearly knowledge of renewable energy is important.” To that effect, Science Saturdays aren’t really about teaching any of the individual topics that are part of a given series. They are about exposing students to science and scientists, and encouraging natural interest and talent that kids might not otherwise discover to be part of their interest/skill set. “The goal” according to Schwuttke, “is always to encourage natural curiosity and instill a sense of wonder or inspiration that leads to a love of science and math and education in general.”

To measure and gauge success of the program, IHMC regularly conducts parent surveys at the end of each season. The surveys assess the success of the program in terms of positive effect on each child’s view of science, and their performance in school. Schwuttke says, to date, “the results have been encouraging and uniformly positive.” Going forward the Center hopes to work with Marion County School District to formulate tools to assess long-term impact.

For information on Science Saturdays visit www.ihmc.us/science_saturdays.php, or contact Dr. Ursula Schwuttke at uschwuttke@ihmc.us. For a follow-up story on Science Saturdays “Rockets & Robots” presentation stay tuned for the May 2013 edition of the FLATE Focus. For information on FLATE’s robotics program, and upcoming 2013 summer robotics camps contact Dr. Marilyn Barger at barger@fl-ate.org, or visit www.madeinflorida.org and www.fl-ate.org.

Hear what Science Saturdays are, first hand