Ethan Echols is a senior biomedical engineering major from Fort Smith, Arkansas. He is also the president of the University of Arkansas Biomedical Engineering Society, a group that recently took an outreach trip to Butterfield Elementary School. Below, he reports on the trip:
On September 26, 2017, several students with the University of Arkansas Biomedical Engineering Society visited Butterfield Elementary School to perform a variety of science experiments with the school’s science club. While most of our events take place on campus and concern only biomedical engineering students, community outreach is also a priority for this society. The opportunity to share scientific knowledge with children is particularly important, as early cultivation of scientific curiosity in young minds is essential for the emergence of tomorrow’s leaders in science and engineering.
The concepts illustrated through these experiments range across a variety of scientific fields. The physical phenomena at play during a tornado were demonstrated on a small scale with nothing more than plastic bottles containing liquid. Similarly, the students had the opportunity to create slime and putty through the exclusive use of common household reagents, learning about chemical bonds and intermolecular forces in the process. In addition to these experiments, the students were able to learn about nerve function, as they each had the opportunity to experience the patellar stretch reflex.
Effectively teaching young children requires a unique skill set. Children cannot be lectured as a university instructor would teach a class of college students. Given that abstract thought is a considerable challenge for children under the age of twelve, concepts must be clearly explained using concrete examples. Explaining the mechanics of a tornado in terms of forces and inertia to these children would be futile. Similarly, an explanation of the nervous system using advanced physiology terms would leave them confused.
The challenge of teaching young children to understand abstract concepts facilitates the development of an important professional skill: the ability to convey complex ideas using simple vocabulary in ways comprehensible to the general public. This is a skill that is crucial to success across a variety of fields, including engineering, marketing, and medicine.
Elementary school is a critical time for the development of a child’s lifelong strengths and interests. At this stage in life, the retention of scientific facts and quantitative analytical capabilities are not nearly as important as the acquisition of a passion for science and a qualitative familiarity with the fundamental laws of the universe. These young students probably do not remember the simplified explanation of nerve transmission they were given, but they will remember their knees involuntarily kicking forward as a result of the patellar stretch reflex, and they will remember the shocking truth that nerves underlie all of our thoughts, movements, and sensations. Most importantly, they will remember the satisfaction of knowing and understanding the world around them.
– Ethan Echols