Middle School Students Team Up With Professional Scientists to Build Working Experiments

02/11/03    Portland, Ore.

Alex Shambry, 12, chewed four different flavors of bubblegum non-stop for eight hours. It's a dream come true for many kids. But all that chewing had a serious side. It's for his upcoming science fair experiment at Robert Gray Middle School in southwest Portland.

Alex is lucky because Robert Gray Middle School is part of the Schools Uniting Neighborhoods Initiative (SUN), which is a partnership between the City of Portland and Multnomah County. SUN partners with local schools to improve the lives of children, their families and the community by developing the schools into full-service community centers. SUN also links community businesses with the schools. Robert Gray chose OHSU as its business partner because of OHSU's focus on science, research, medicine, engineering and community outreach. OHSU is also nearby.

As part of this collaboration OHSU scientists have been working one-on-one with several Robert Gray students who were having trouble putting together their science projects. In addition, last month two OHSU scientists were at the school and presented biology and physics demonstrations to get the students ready to create their own projects. OHSU will also provide 20 to 30 judges for the science fair.

Alex has been working with Jacob Raber, Ph.D., OHSU School of Medicine assistant professor of behavioral neuroscience and neurology. Alex chose bubblegum as the key element for his project. He wanted to know which gum made the biggest bubbles. He figured it could have huge implications with most kids he knew. Alex and Raber have met several times to discuss and plot the project.

"I went over his idea for the project in detail, gave suggestions on how to move this forward and carry out the project, and helped Alex set deadlines for the different parts of the project," Raber said.

As with all projects, Alex hit a few snags. His brother and his nephew ate some of the experiment, but it didn't deter Alex. He narrowed his focus to four different types of Bubble Yum bubblegum: cotton candy, original small, original large and sugarless peppermint. He chewed and he chewed. He measured each bubble, then charted out the results. Raber helped him create a flow chart on the computer.

Other students such as sisters Patricia and Cecilia Gonzalez were having trouble setting up their experiments and understanding the difference between the results and the conclusion. They worked one-on-one with German R. Nunez, Ph.D., vice provost and director of the OHSU Office of Diversity and Multicultural Affairs. The girls and Nunez both speak Spanish and English. Often during their planning meetings, they would speak Spanish to explain and understand detailed scientific concepts. Patricia, 12, a seventh-grader, was testing liquids and how they react in a vacuum. Cecilia, 14, an eighth-grader, had a project demonstrating the relationship between weight, distance and propulsion.

The mentoring has allowed a special connection to develop between the scientists and the students.

"It's been a fantastic experience for me. These students are so smart. I have loved working with them," Nunez said.