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Students learn while having fun at Sally Ride Science Fest

Retired NASA astronaut Barbara Morgan, above, watches as students perform an experiment during the Sally Ride Science Festival on October 30.
Retired NASA astronaut Barbara Morgan, above, watches as students perform an experiment during the Sally Ride Science Festival on October 30.

Saturdays are normally a fairly quiet time on campus, but on October 30, UT Arlington was buzzing with activity. Almost 1,000 students - mostly girls - in grades 5-8 from across the Metroplex converged on UTA for a day of learning and fun at the Sally Ride Science Festival.

The festival, presented by ExxonMobil and Sally Ride Science, brings together students, their parents and teachers for a day of science and socializing. The goal is to spur girls' interest in science and math and show them that science is a fun and exciting discipline. The festival focuses on young girls because girls are traditionally underrepresented in the fields of science and math.

"The opportunity to generate interest in science among girls is always important, and we're proud to be part of that effort," Dean of Science Pamela Jansma said.

The event began with a street fair which sprawled across the library mall, with hands-on exhibits designed to educate and entertain. Festival-goers were then treated to a talk by former NASA astronaut and teacher Barbara Morgan at Texas Hall. The students then split into groups and went to workshops, each of which was led by a UT Arlington faculty member or area teacher and focused on a specific discipline. The workshops let the students learn various scientific concepts through hands-on, supervised experimentation.

The festival, being held at UT Arlington for the first time, was a rousing success, according to all involved. The event travels to universities across the country, but UTA and Rice University are its only Texas stops this year.

"Most of our outreach to K-12 students is done on a much smaller scale. To see hundreds of middle school girls engaged in hands-on science and engineering activities with our faculty and students was really exciting, and their enthusiasm was contagious," said Lori Norris, special programs coordinator for the College of Science. "Our faculty and students had a great time, as well. We appreciate our partnership with ExxonMobil that makes this sort of program possible, and look forward to hosting more events like this in the future."

The day kicked off with a street fair, with groups from across campus and outside vendors displaying a host of science demonstrations. The UT Arlington Science Ambassadors wowed the young audience with "chemistry magic" using props including liquid nitrogen, bubbling chemicals and even hands on fire - explaining the science behind each along the way.

Other street fair exhibits included interactive experiments by Discovery in Science in the United States (DISCUS); a drug and alcohol prevention display by UTA Health Center; a fossil and bone exhibit by the Arlington Archosaur Site; a paper marbling display highlighting the chemical process by the UTA Resource Library; a field work display by the Earth and Environmental Sciences Department; a marine biology exhibit by the lab team of biology assistant professor Laura Mydlarz; optics demonstrations by SPIE (Society of Photo-Optical Instrumentation Engineers); making liquid nitrogen ice cream by the Society of Physics Students; and an exhibit by the Society of Women Engineers.

Some phrases commonly overheard from students during the street fair were "Whoa!", "Cool!" and "How'd you do that?" The students also listened to music and got temporary College of Science tattoos.

Morgan, a teacher who joined NASA's Teacher in Space program in 1985, was a member of the Space Shuttle Endeavour's crew when it flew to the International Space Station in August 2007. She recalled thinking science was no place for girls while growing up, but came to realize the error in that thinking as she got older.

"I realized that girls could do anything that boys could do," she said. "I want everybody here to know that and never forget it."

After being selected for the Teacher in Space program in 1985, she trained with Christa McAuliffe as the alternate for the Challenger mission on Jan. 28, 1986. The mission ended in tragedy when the shuttle disintegrated shortly after liftoff from Kennedy Space Center in Florida, killing all seven crew members aboard, including McAuliffe.

Morgan resumed her career as a public school teacher. Twenty-one years would pass before Morgan, now a Distinguished Educator in Residence at Boise State University, got her chance to go into space. She was a Mission Specialist aboard Endeavour, and one of her tasks was to operate the robotic arms of the shuttle and the space station.

Students watch as the UT Arlington Science Ambassadors perform some "chemistry magic" during the street fair. Photos courtesy of ExxonMobil.
Students watch as the UT Arlington Science Ambassadors perform some "chemistry magic" during the street fair. Photos courtesy of ExxonMobil.

As festival-goers listened, Morgan related her nervousness aboard Endeavour in 2007 as the countdown to launch began, and tried to give the audience an idea of just how fast the shuttle traveled as it sped though Earth's atmosphere and into space. A mere eight minutes after liftoff, the shuttle is cruising along at 17,500 miles per hour - five miles a second.

She talked about how beautiful the Earth and sunsets are from space, and how from the shuttle and the space station, space appears as a rich shade of black she's never seen replicated on Earth. After her talk, Morgan answered the girls' questions on her space travels and her decision to become an astronaut. Then, each group of students attended two workshops, led by faculty and teachers. Every discipline in the College of Science was represented, with students getting the chance to participate in activities designed to illustrate principles crucial to each discipline.

Some of the topics covered by the workshops included the geologic time scale; effects of various environmental and man-made factors on coral reefs; exploring genomics by capturing DNA in a bottle; exploring electricity using light and battery circuits; the harmful effects of oil spills; examining genetics using specimens and stereoscopes; microbiology; laws of physics using mini race cars; protecting oneself from skin cancer; exploring kinetic/potential energy by designing a roller coaster; the brain's "instant messaging system"; introductions to psychology; an introduction to turtles, snakes, frogs and lizards; exploring how coloring and math mix; and exploring the concepts behind flying using paper helicopters. The festival was created by Sally Ride Science, the organization founded in 2001 by Sally Ride, the first American woman in space. Sally Ride Science is dedicated to fueling young students' interests in science, math and technology by creating programs and products designed to educate, entertain and inspire. For more information, go to www.sallyridescience.com.

For more photos from the festival, go to the College of Science page on Facebook here.