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GSU museum offers hands-on experiments to students through outreach program, exhibit
092007 MUSEUM 1
Sharon Boswell, 8, gets some hands-on experience while learning about chemical reactions in the Mad Scientist Laboratory exhibit at the Georgia Southern University Museum.


A short video about the Mad Scientist Exhibit and Project SENSE

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Mad scientists are on the loose at the Georgia Southern University Museum.
    The Georgia Southern University Museum has put up a Mad Scientist Laboratory exhibit expressly designed for kid scientists. Running from now until March 16, 2008, the exhibit focuses on touchable displays in physical science. From trash cans that look like nuclear water bins to Tesla coils to waterproof sand, it promises to provide hands-on fun for children of all ages.
    Brent Tharp, the museum’s director, described the thought process behind the laboratory. In part, he said it was to promote their school outreach program.
    “Needless to say, its one of the other reasons for doing this exhibit — to get the word out about Project SENSE,” said Tharp.
    Project Sense — Science Education Network for the Southeast — is a year round program with the motto “hands-on, minds-on science.” In an effort to bring hands-on learning directly to the students and teachers of Southeast Georgia, it brings teachers in from 24 different school systems. Not only does it train teachers in using hands-on science in the classroom but it also distributes activity kits — a service enabling teachers to get experiments and equipment directly into the classroom.
    “We decided to have some fun hands-on experiments and came up with the idea of a mad scientist’s laboratory, which is always attractive with the kids,” said Tharp. “As the exhibit stays up, we’ll switch in some new experiments so they can drag Mom and Dad back in to do some more experiments.”
    Jeffery and Jessica Orvis are the curators for the Mad Scientist Laboratory and are both chemistry professors at GSU. They said they have never before used their vast array of hands-on experiments in this type of exhibit.
    “Over the years,  we’ve developed a stable of things we like to do for various classes - whether the teachers are teaching physics or light or sound or chemistry,” said Jeffery. “When Brent asked us about this, it’s interesting, because you have to come up with experiments you can do without watching all the children. So, you can’t quite have gigantic flames and explosions. [Brent] kind of frowned on that. You have to come up with things that teach something but are also enjoyable — so kids can just play and have fun.”
    “It’s a whole new way of thinking, to plan activities that are independent of you that will still have some meaning for the kids,” said Jessica. “Not only should they have fun doing this, but they should take away something about science. Hopefully, they learn something while they’re here.”
    The Orvis’ said it’s fun seeing applications they’ve used for years being turned into a mad scientist exhibit. They said the museum has done a great job making the experiments user-friendly.
    “Little things like anchoring down the Tesla coil so that people can’t change the adjustment level on it by themselves. That’s genius!” said Jessica. “We had to stand past students and say ‘No. Don’t touch that.’ But you can’t do that in a museum. People have to be able to be here without us standing here over them.”
    The exhibit is sponsored, in part, by the Statesboro Service League, an all-women, volunteer civic organization with about 100 active members. Their museum committee works throughout the year with the museum and typically sponsors one exhibit geared towards children in the multi-county area. Marianna  Voiselle, committee chair, said the service league wants to help expose children to information and displays they may not otherwise get a chance to see.
    Tharp said he tried to take the philosophy of Project SENSE and turn it into an exhibit in the museum.
    “It’s a great exhibit, which meets our mission of teaching the kids and the public having fun,” said Tharp. “But SENSE is too well-kept a secret with the general public. The schools know it well and know how valuable it is, but I don’t think the general public knows how valuable a service this is.”
Project SENSE
    Project SENSE, now entering its 18th year, was conceived and is fully operated by Georgia Southern. It has touched over 80,000 lives since its inception.
    “It’s an entirely home-grown program to address the needs, specifically, of the schools in this area,” said Tharp. “There is national research that shows hands-on is the most effective learning, but there just wasn’t the materials, resources or background for teachers to do that as much as they wanted to in the classroom.”
    The Orvis’ have been Project SENSE instructors since 1999. They said there are two different areas they focus on during the teacher training.
    “First is teachers’ content knowledge,” said Jeffery. “In the middle schools in particular, the state is changing the curriculum and moving physical science from 6th to 8th grade. So, there’s been a whole bunch of teachers teaching a whole different subject than they’re used to.”
    “We’re trying to update their basic understanding in physical science — the fundamentals behind electricity, magnetism, chemical reactions, etc. So, one purpose of these workshops is to have college faculty talk to teachers and update their content knowledge.”
    “After content, we try to give them a variety of hands-on activities that they can do themselves with their students,” said Jeffery.
    “We find these teachers are really very good. A lot of them just need a little update on some content,” said Jessica. “So, since many are good in terms of what they understand, we tend to focus more on ‘here’s something else you can do’ and how you would link physical science to other subjects.”
    Another aspect of Project SENSE is the learning kits that K-8 teachers can check out from the programs headquarters.
    Ruby  Ashley, the education coordinator for the museum and Project SENSE, explained the program.
    “The difficulty with science is that most of our schools in southeast Georgia did not have the equipment or that the teachers had to go out and get the supplies themselves,” said Ashley. “We have a kit based program. Teachers check out kits for two weeks at a time. The kits contain both the consumable and non-consumable items - teachers don’t have to go out to the store. And, with our full-time driver, we actually deliver it into the classroom.”
    “The great part about the kits is that the lesson plans are there and already coordinated to the Georgia Performance Standards, so they know they are teaching what they need to meet current standards. When they open up the kit, all the equipment for the experiments is in there.”
    “For instance,  the Tesla Coil is something most schools can’t afford to have around. It’s fairly specialized equipment and they only teach static electricity once a year. They don’t need [the coil] all year long. So, they check out the kit when needed, then the next school checks it out and it moves around throughout the year.”
    Ashley said Project SENSE and Project BEST - the social studies program - have about 600 different kits  that are sent out to schools. She said the program logs about 30,000 miles per year, serving 25 different southeast Georgia counties . About 1800 kits are sent out throughout the year.
    “One of the things we find is how much of a supply problem teachers have,” said Jeffery. “How something as simple as straws - if they can’t buy themselves out of their own money, they ain’t got it. So Project SENSE is really trying to fill the gap.”
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