Last weekend, the University of Washington and Pacific Science Center teamed up for the Paws on Science Weekend. Several FOSEP members took part to share their scientific research with attendees, most of which were families with children. Two of my colleagues, Dawn, and Laura, and I made a hands on activity to teach people about proteins focusing on structure function relationships. It consisted of 6 foot long rubber tubes surrounding copper wires that could be bent into folded “proteins.” By following a few basic chemistry rules–most importantly the hydrophobic effect in which proteins fold to hide their hydrophobic “water fearing” sidechains inside, while the hydrophilic “water loving” sidechains are situated on the outside of the protein exposed to water–people folded their own proteins. For the older kids we added electrostatic interactions or “mutations” which would result in a new protein fold. We had a lot of fun with the activity, and I think we interested at least a few people in how the shape of a protein in your own body is important for its function to keep you alive and healthy. Plus the kids (and adults!) had fun playing with the much much MUCH larger than life “proteins.”
There were two other FOSEP member stations doing Paws on Science outreach. Eric from the Department of Astronomy had a really cool demonstration about detecting planets that move in front of stars. The kids loved it. Brad from the Department of Chemistry had a really neat station about solar cells with actual machines and lights running on solar power.
I think the event was as much a learning experience for the scientists as for the kids. Most of the participating scientists took free workshops organized by Pacific Science Center experts on how to best communicate science to a general audience of every age. I learned first-hand how difficult it can be to explain science to non-scientists without using jargon. My friend, Phil, once said that if you can’t explain your science to an 8 year old, then you probably don’t know it well enough yourself. I certainly got some good practice this weekend and had a lot of fun at the same time.