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Last month, Preston Veterans Memorial School held its fourth annual Family Fun Science Night, bringing together local businesses like Mystic Aquarium and Sikorsky Aircraft and parent volunteers, to get students excited about science, technology, engineering and math.
In the lawn just outside the school auditorium, eager students gathered around a line of one-liter bottles of soda - each bottle with a tube of Mentos mints over the spout. As soon as the mints were released from their holding tubes, volcanic explosions of fizzing cola burst from each bottle, rising into the air before pouring down onto the laughing, screaming children, who shielded their faces from the sticky rain.
"Anything that bubbles over and explodes is always very exciting," said Danette Dykema, president of the Preston Veterans Memorial School PTO and organizer of the science night. "We try to have (an explanation) for every exhibit. We do hope that some of the kids see some of the science behind it."
Kristen Muench of Preston said that the idea of making science fun is exactly why she decided to bring her two sons, Owen, 6, and Austin, 3, to the science night for the first time.
Both boys sat at the edge of a table inside the auditorium. Behind protective goggles, their eyes were fixed on a bucket that issued heavy white vapor as parent volunteers from Pfizer Inc. poured liquid nitrogen onto a mixture of chocolate syrup and half and half, creating a flash frozen ice cream treat.
Older brother Owen was already excited about science and an event like the family science night provided an opportunity for him to engage in science outside of school, said Muench. It also offered the brothers an opportunity to have a learning experience together.
"It mixes science and fun, it gets them excited. Even Austin is excited," she said, as Owen showed off his serving of ice cream and his younger brother stomped after him, quietly chanting "I want to go to the science fair."
Dykema said a goal of the event is to provide an educational environment for students of any age and to allow adult family members to take part in the learning process.
"We open this up to families as a free event. We tell everyone to come. Grandparents, younger siblings. Some demonstrations are geared towards younger kids like 'What Floats, What Sinks,'" said Dykema, describing an exhibit meant to teach kids about density by letting them test which items float or sink.
Other demonstrations, like those from professional groups, are meant to be accessible to younger children while still being educational for older students.
"Some (demonstrations) are more complicated. Bringing in people from Sikorsky can inspire the 5th graders or the 6th, 7th and 8th graders," said Dykema.
Another professional group present at the fair was Southeastern Connecticut Regional Resources Recovery Authority, or SCRRRA, a regional body created to find solutions for solid waste, recyclables, household hazardous waste, and other waste materials.
"We have a lot of fun things here," said Winston Averill, a recycling coordinator from SCRRRA. Averill brought examples of recycled products, which included building insulation made from blue jeans, a notebook binder made from computer motherboards, and mailing envelopes made from maps.
"I want to show kids that when you recycle items, they can come back as other interesting items," he said. "I want them to use their imagination."
At the next table over from Averill's, rows of colorful rocks and shiny minerals attracted curious eyes and fingers. Al Peret of Thames Valley Rock Hounds has been bringing his large collection of rocks, minerals, fossils and meteorites to the Preston Veterans Memorial School science fair since the first even in 2010. Peret said that while the kids are often interested in the rocks, the key to keeping students engaged is to make the subject relatable.
He offered students a sand concretion; a baseball-sized gray rock made of sand and gypsum, which looked like a rotten peach. He then showseda spiky white cylindrical clump of crystals that resembled a cross section of an ear of corn. Then a small pock-marked red rock, which on one side resembled a potato, and on the other had been cut and polished to reveal multicolored crystal inside. A novelty piece of his collection that really "gets the kids going," he said, was a dark piece of "rock" which, after it is handled he reveals it is petrified dinosaur droppings.
According to Peret, making science fun and exciting is the key to keeping kids engaged, both inside the classroom and at events like the science fair.
"It grabs their attention, just like when I was a kid," said Peret. "All you need is one time. Then they're hooked"
And getting the students hooked on science at a young age is one of the primary goals of the science night, Dykema said.
"Science is one of those afterthought (subjects) in elementary school, so for us to be able to bring different science demonstrations gets them excited about what is out there in the future for them," said Dykema. "They get excited for the future, so when they hit middle school, they aren't going to be afraid. They might think science and math are tough and hard but they really are fun."