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Learning after dark

Penn Science Night generates third year of excitement
Ben Conlon has a hair-raising experience at the Hawk Eyes’ booth, an outreach program from the University of Iowa Department of Physics. (photo by Lori Lindner

NORTH LIBERTY– Generating electricity, building skyscrapers and simulating laparoscopic surgery: today’s elementary students are exploring science in surprising new ways.
That is the purpose of Penn Elementary School’s Science Night. Held Feb. 26 in North Liberty, this was the third annual event geared toward encouraging students to learn how fun science and experimentation can be.
This year’s 17 presenters came from area businesses, nonprofit organizations and several departments from the University of Iowa’s (UI) science disciplines and UI Health Care. Each entity offered hands-on science experiences and activities that emphasized the excitement and wonder of STEM education– Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.
Alliant Energy’s booth allowed kids to see how steam power can be converted to energy. To understand the “magic of liquid nitrogen,” students were invited to freeze marshmallows and make their own ice cream, always a popular stop during Science Night. Equally popular, but not quite as tasty, was the insect zoo provided by the Iowa State Extension Service. Students and family members waited in long lines to get up close with a variety of live centipedes, tarantulas, beetles and even a scorpion, asking questions about their habits, habitats and daily meals.
Shishonee Hughes, a parent volunteer in Penn’s Parent-Teacher Organization (PTO), helped coordinate this year’s event.
“Penn PTO offers several free community-building activities throughout the year for our Penn families,” Hughes said. Past activities have included outdoor movies, a Bingo for Books night, and the annual Science Night. “Science Night is awesome because (kids) are being exposed to technology and experiences that add to and go beyond the science curriculum provided by the district,” she said.
Hughes, who is also a science teacher at West High School, said children’s innate curiosity plays a big part in the ways they learn science.
“Exploring science concepts with a hands-on approach is essentially playing– and of course, that would get any kid fired up. Our presenters do a fabulous job in providing the appropriate experience to get the kids hooked and wanting more,” she added.
Hughes said she is grateful to live in a community that has so many educational institutions, organizations and businesses that want to give back.
“They care about the future of our kids enough to volunteer their time and energy to give them a fun and awesome learning experience,” Hughes said. “Without them, the Science Night doesn’t exist and I am so thankful for their willingness to participate.”
Because Penn students are continually learning science through hands-on activities in their regular curriculum, Science Night was a way for them to demonstrate their knowledge. Penn fifth grade classes prepared their own learning station for visitors as well. Fifth graders each chose an element from the periodic table, researched it and created a visual representation with elemental facts to share the information they learned.
“I learned that elements can be in things you don’t expect,” said fifth grader Vanessa Hegland. “I was surprised there’s cadmium in lipstick.”
Even the youngest Penn students use science in meaningful ways.
“I learned how to make recycled paper,” said kindergartner Hailey Hegland.
Whether watching robots in action, riding virtual roller coasters, peering into microscopes or building cookies to replicate the structure of a cell, students engaged all their senses throughout the evening at Penn Science Night.
Student Ben Karsten, whose father is an engineer, said he enjoys science experiences because he learns a lot in the process.
“Science is interesting, and it’s fun,” said Karsten, who said a scientific career might be part of his own future. “I dropped a magnet on top of a copper piece, and it floated. It’s just… cool.”