Oak Park ‘young scientists’ event brings comets down to earth
A group of students look at a globe of Mars as they get ready for their comets workshop at a Young Scientists Conference at Mann School on Saturday. | Jon Langham~for Sun-Times Media
Updated: April 1, 2013 6:41AM
Kate Benson stirs water and dirt in an orange bowl lined with a kitchen trash bag.
Shive Opal squeezes in carbon in the form of corn syrup from a condiment bottle, and “Scientist Sally,” as Dr. Sally Laurent-Muehleisen calls herself, adds ammonia from a spritzer.
The dozen kindergartners and first-graders break up a block of dry ice by each taking five whacks at it with a mallet, and Laurent-Muehleisen adds the fragments to the concoction in the bowl. As a finishing touch, the Illinois Institute of Technology astrophysicist creates a “tail” by pouring a cup of room temperature water on the creation.
It may sound like a recipe for disaster, but the group was making a comet.
“We call them dirty snowballs, but really they’re dirty ice,” Laurent-Muehleisen tells the students.
Hers was one of 24 kid-friendly workshops offered Saturday to students from each District 97 elementary school during the 2013 Young Scientists Conference at Horace Mann Elementary School.
Others included “Analyze Candy Using Chromatography,” by Dr. Daniela Andrei, an associate professor of chemistry at Dominican University; “Isolating DNA from Strawberries,” with Dr. Patrick Hamblin, an environmental engineer with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and Dr. Helena Palka-Hamblin, a cell and molecular biologist at the University of Illinois-Chicago; and “Who Stole the Cookies from the Cookie Jar?” with Naomi Pooley, a registered nurse at Rush Oak Park Hospital.
The event was made possible by the Oak Park Education Foundation’s Science Alliance program, which gives students an opportunity to engage with scientists from leading institutions.
Laurent-Muehleisen filled the hour and a half with a variety of activities, including a short discussion about comets and their impact on our planet by creating the oceans; the creation of the comet; and the choreography of a “comet dance” inspired by a short film about the break-up of the comet Shoemaker Levy as it collided with Jupiter in 1994.
“Who likes lemonade?” she asked. A dozen hands reached toward the ceiling.
“You’re drinking comet water,” she told them.
“Who spends time swimming in the pool in summer?” Laurent-Muehleisen continued. “You’re swimming in comet water.”
In other words, she said: “You’re all comet people because you’re made of comet water.”
As the film played, some of the students, anxious to get moving, practiced the water sprinkler dance to the sounds of Electric Light Orchestra. Laurent-Muehleisen offers to play the role of Jupiter, allowing the dancers to crash into her.
“I’ll be a planet. All I ask is, if you want to crash into this planet, you be careful of the glasses,” she said.
Patty Keyuranggul, mother of workshop participant Cade Molina, was a parent helper for the session.
“I was kind of wondering how she would teach kindergartners about comets, but she catered to their age range really well,” she said.