Scientists use interactive shows to draw youngsters

Erika Angle (second photo from left) showing how sound frequencies affect flames. Scientists (from left) burning isopropyl alcohol; creating elephant toothpaste; and lying on nails.
Erika Angle (second photo from left) showing how sound frequencies affect flames. Scientists (from left) burning isopropyl alcohol; creating elephant toothpaste; and lying on nails.
Photos/Raytheon Co.

FOXBOROUGH — Having experienced her share of major storms, including the Blizzard of 2013 earlier this month, 16-year-old Erin Lynch says she wants to be an atmospheric scientist when she grows up.

“I like the idea of studying something that’s abstract and not everyone completely understands it yet,” said the high school student from Easton, who says her favorite subject is science. “In the future I want to help to create better prediction and preparation for these dangerous storms.”

But Erika Ebbel Angle, founder and chief executive of Science From Scientists, said Lynch’s aspiration to pursue science is not common among youngsters. Through her Boston-based nonprofit, Angle is trying to improve attitudes and aptitudes of children in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. In interactive shows at Patriot Place over the February school vacation, Angle, a biochemist, and several other scientists demonstrated how math and science are part of the world around us — and how they can be fun.

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The shows, which drew over 300 middle schoolers (and chaperones), were part of Raytheon Co.’s celebration of National Engineers Week.

Angle, an accomplished pianist originally from California and Miss Massachusetts 2004, who calls herself “a huge geek,” said there’s a perception that scientists are not interesting people, that they have no life outside of the lab. “I think that for a lot of the children, it’s what is a deterrent for them — they think that science is boring,” she said. “If you ask a kid to draw a scientist, they will draw a freaky-looking, big-haired, glasses-wearing, sort of stereotypical mad scientist, rather than what most scientists are, which is normal people, with hobbies, with lives, with interests, with passions.”

At interactive demonstrations last week, goggle-clad and google-eyed children of all ages participated in experiments like making elephant toothpaste (a colorful foam that’s formed when hydrogen peroxide interacts with potassium iodide) and answered questions like: “Would you rather sleep on one nail or 1,000 nails?” (Take the latter, because weight is better borne when distributed.)

“It relates back to things that these kids see every day — it’s not just some nebulous biology done by some biologist in a lab,” said Angle. “It’s real to them, and it’s understandable.”

For 11-year-old Ella Petroni, of Framingham, it’s just that. She said she especially liked the parts that dealt with air pressure because she was able to connect it with what she knew about water pressure from swimming. “I understand it because I’m a swimmer and the water pressure is kind of like the air pressure — it presses down on you,” she said.

Angle said studies show a real need to show science to children at a young age. “There is a massive shortage of people going into these fields — and we need them — who are going to become the doctors, the engineers, the scientists, the people who are going to go build the buildings or cure cancer.”

Getting children hooked when young — Angle said the 9-to-14 age group is most susceptible — is key. She said in many schools, there aren’t designated science teachers or programs.