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Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Science Behind SHU’s Summer Camp Programs

The Science Behind SHU’s Summer Camp Programs
By Mike Lauterborn
(for Sacred Heart University)

Fairfield, CT – Black-topped counters, the clink of beakers, the whir of a fume hood, vibrating centrifuges. The science labs seemed pretty typical of the environment you would expect in a university setting, but the students doing all the experimenting and testing were anything but. Some were just sixth graders; the balance was not much older.

Made possible by Sacred Heart University and hosted on the Fairfield campus at 5151 Park Avenue July 18 through 29, Summer Science Camp gave youngsters from all over Connecticut the opportunity to explore the category and determine if it may be something they would like to pursue as a career one day. Two classes were presented – Senior Scientists and Forensics. Instructors led them in hands-on activities three hours a day, five days a week for the two-week period.

“This camp is great,” said Monica Strada, leader of the Senior Scientist (Chemistry) class. “It fosters interest in science. SHU’s chemistry department has a wonderful outreach program as well, working with preschools and elementary schools. Undergraduate and graduate students guide program concepts. This is a teaching university – it’s great to have that aspect.”

Strada added that, as a small university, SHU is very fortunate to own a nuclear magnetic resonance instrument, a highly sophisticated giant electromagnet that allows students to study molecular structure.

“Chemistry is in everything,” said Strada. “That’s what we’re demonstrating. It affects every aspect of your life, even if you’re not aware of it.”

Strada’s classroom assistant, Nicole Brovarski, 17, from Monroe, was helping out on a Thursday July 21 session focused on testing the glucose levels in bananas kept in different storage environments, to see which environment is most beneficial. One banana was placed in a freezer, one in a refrigerator, one in a bowl in the open air and a fourth in a Ziploc bag.

“We put these into their respective storage environments on Monday, so they essentially had 72 hours to age before we started examining them, to see which ripened faster or slower,” Brovarski said. “As a banana ripens, its sugar content increases. We use sugar content as a measurement for ripeness.”

Ultimately, the class determined that it’s best to store bananas by themselves, ideally in a banana stand, in the open air. “In terms of having a palatable banana, freezing is a poor option,” said Strada. “Its appearance become discolored. The one in the bag ripens fastest because the banana releases ethylene gas, which gets trapped and issues a bio-chemical signal to the fruit to ripen. The gas is the reason you don’t want to store bananas next to other fruit. In terms of the banana stored in the refrigerator, the cold air doesn’t halt the ripening, only slows it down. The banana becomes slightly discolored and doesn’t look nice. You might not choose to eat it. Open air is really the most preferable way to store bananas.”

Highly engaged in the experiment, Ian Villamil, 12, from Sandy Hook, CT, said his aim is to get into a really high-level class online through his home schooling program. “This will help me do that,” he said.

A previous experiment focused on Cheetoh’s snacks and sought to show that food contains stored energy that can be measured. “I was surprised that Cheetoh’s have a high energy level,” said Villamil. “We determined that by burning a few Cheetoh’s underneath a can of water that had a thermostat in it. The measurement was in joules per gram.”

At the tender age of 11, Fairfielder Ryan Petrucelli was already a veteran camper, having taken the classes last summer. “This year we did a Coke and Mentos experiment wherein we put the candy in a two-liter container of Coke,” he said. “Just one made a huge geyser of soda shoot up. This was caused by a chemical reaction that releases carbon dioxide in a sudden rush.”

Added Petrucelli, “Chemistry is a lot of fun. You discover a lot of interesting things when you mix chemicals together.”

Petrucelli wasn’t the only veteran. Jen Hance, also 11, from Trumbull, has participated in Sacred Heart summer camps for the past two years, though this was the first year she was doing Senior Scientists.

“I really like science and using all the cool equipment – vortexes, centrifuges, vacuum pressure pumps,” she said. “I read Discovery magazine all the time. This might be a possible career for me.”

Just down the hall, being held simultaneously, was the Forensics class, led by Sue Blozzon, a high school chemistry teacher from Monroe. Thursday’s class session focused on fingerprints, with students having to match them and make their own to develop three different ways.

Quite sure of herself, Adrian Fox, 13, from Thomaston, CT, shared, “No two fingerprints are the same. When you look to match them you seek out loops, whirls and arches, then ridge characteristics. In most cases, you want to study the center of a fingerprint, as that’s where it’s most individualized.”

Fox said she would like to be a forensics scientist. “I watch ‘Bones’ and ‘NCIS’, which both inspire about the field,” she confided. “My cousin, who’s 20, is working on becoming a forensics scientist, too. We talk about what I’m learning here and compare notes.”

Illustrating her passion for the field, Fox said, “When I was four, I took a book from her titled ‘Five-Minute Forensic Mysteries’ and I still haven’t given it back. I love mysteries and criminal justice.”

Instructor Blozzon mentioned some of the exercises she had led students through over the last week or so. “In one class, we tested stomach contents samples for the presence of certain foods, which helps determine if a certain food may have caused the death of a person,” she said. “It may also determine where they ate last.”

In another class, students watched a video of ‘The Iceman’ about the discovery of a body mummified by ice in the Swiss Alps 5,000 years ago. “Forensics were used to determine the cause of death, which turned out to be an arrow in the back,” said Blozzon.

The subject matter was right up 14-year-old Southbury resident Christian Clarke’s alley. “I’ve been interested since I was eight in fingerprints and CSI stuff that I saw on TV,” he said. “I’m thinking this might lead to a career in forensics.” 

One thing that struck Clarke about mummification is that “nature is pretty amazing in preserving bodies. I thought that only man could do that. I’m also amazed at how the littlest thing can determine a person’s guilt or innocence. A lab tech has a pretty big responsibility.”

Another student inspired by TV shows like “CSI” and “NCIS” was Patrick Lazzaro, 12, of Monroe. “I thought it was cool how they do special stuff like taking fingerprints from a surface,” he said. “To the eye, prints seem invisible.”

While most would cringe at the thought of analyzing stomach contents, Lazzaro enjoyed this class exercise. “The story in this case was that someone went to a party, ate appetizers and died,” he said. “We tested the contents – sugar appeared in each sample – and determined that a candy appetizer had been poisoned. That was pretty cool. I might want to do this as a job. Maybe computer analysis of crime scene samples.”

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