CORVALLIS- If you ask almost any little kid in Corvallis who Dr. Skip is, they'll tell you, with a huge grin, that he is the science guy - proof positive that Skip Rochefort's numerous science outreach programs are working.
In addition to being an associate professor of chemical engineering at Oregon State University, Rochefort runs a long list of science outreach programs targeted at kids in kindergarten up through high school, particularly minorities and women. They are intended to show the fun side of science and dispel the stereotypical notions of who can be a scientist.
"One of the things we do is to encourage science and engineering early on," said Rochefort. "A lot of studies have shown that if you start reinforcing concepts in young kids, no matter what they are - math, science, engineering, art, music - that the kids will retain it."
Rochefort and OSU professor Dan Arp developed one program, funded by the National Science Foundation, that involved graduate students, many of them women, to bring science and engineering activities to local elementary and middle schools, and serve as positive role models for the kids.
"It's nice to see how the young girls see these graduate students and say this woman is smart, she's a triathlete, and she's a scientist," said Rochefort. "Then you can see them go on and take science in high school because they were able to identify with a great female role model."
One of Rochefort's newest projects, in collaboration with Ellen Momsen, director of the Women and Minorities Program in the OSU College of Engineering, has been a section in Momentum, the College of Engineering's electronic newspaper at http://engr.oregonstate.edu/momentum/. The monthly section is called "Dr. Skip's Corner: K-12 Teaching Adventures at OSU Engineering," and contains a new science or engineering experiment each month. The program was started to provide fun science and engineering content to alumni, parents and teachers throughout Oregon.
"We both feel that by reaching teachers from throughout the state, we have an opportunity to impact a greater number of Oregon students," Momsen said. "We hope that Dr. Skip's Corner becomes a valuable resource for teachers, who will then be able to share the activity information with their students. We also hope that teachers will discover the exciting research projects being developed in the College of Engineering at OSU, as well as the many programs available to their K-12 students."
A recent edition's experiment involved investigating the absorbent properties of diapers.
The goal of the activity was to compare old cloth diapers with the much more popular disposable ones, and to discover why the disposable ones are so much more effective at absorbing moisture. The key lies in the little crystals of super absorbent polymer embedded in the cotton. SAPs are dehydrated gel beads that suck up water and grow into a soft, cushy gel, which not only keeps babies dry, but also provides them with a nice comfy pad to sit on.
"When I did this experiment with my kindergarteners, they decided to take all of the fluff out of the diapers and make a diaper mountain," said Rochefort. "Then they started adding water and it was just growing and growing, so then one of the little kids decides to add food coloring and the next thing you know it's a rainbow diaper mountain. It stayed there for a couple of weeks and I had them stick their fingers in and see that it was still moist in the middle because the polymers hold the water in so well."
The "corner" experiments are generally ones that have been tested on kids in summer programs, said Rochefort, so they are known to be appealing and fun while still being educational. "One of my philosophies is that you can take something across grade levels just by explaining it differently," said Rochefort. "We tailor the activity to different grade levels, and we also want it to be something that parents can do at home or that teachers can do in the classroom."
Rochefort has always been interested in teaching and especially enjoys working with kids, and this combination of interests has led him to his intense involvement in outreach programs. He loosely estimates that these programs have had an impact on 6,000 young students in recent years. More than 200 students and their parents attended a "Family Science Night" recently at a local elementary school. The College of Science Discovery Days held in April on the OSU campus attracted more than 1,500 students. And the recent Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Portland allowed OSU chemical engineering and bioengineering students to play with SAPs and make gel beads with over 2,000 K-12 school children over a two-day period.
A recent $1.1 million, three-year grant from the Flora and William Hewlett Foundation to the College of Engineering, for the recruitment and retention of women and minorities in engineering, has allowed Rochefort to expand and create new K-12 outreach programs. In collaboration with KidSpirit and Saturday Academy, Rochefort started the Spirited Kids in Engineering and Science program last summer, which involved over 400 kids in science and engineering activities for 11 weeks. This summer, as part of the Saturday Academy Apprenticeships in Science and Engineering program, 11 high school students, nine of them women, will be working in the Chemical Engineering Department teaching younger students and doing original research with Rochefort and his colleagues.
Rochefort sees this as the "recruitment pyramid." Graduate and undergraduate engineering students serve as mentors for high school students, who in turn serve as mentors for elementary and middle school kids. "It's a holistic learning environment, where everyone learns and grows a little bit in the context of fun summer activities," he said.
Rochefort is an expert in polymer science and biomaterials, and has held positions in private industry with such companies as Kodak, Dow Chemical and AT&T Bell Laboratories.
"The outreach is more of a hobby," said Rochefort. "But with this new grant from the Hewlett Foundation, which I am convinced we would not have received without the outreach component, I have finally gotten outreach added to my job description," he said with a broad smile.