I took a mulligan last week at the Laingsburg Middle School Science Fair, where I presented to the 6th-8th graders alongside other volunteers from science groups in the area.
Going in, I had zero idea what middle schoolers already knew, what they might find interesting, or even really what I was supposed to bring to this event. Everyone kept throwing around the word "demo", so I tried to think of some sort of activity or demonstration that might be big-kid-friendly.
I wanted to present something about the importance of native plants-- an idea very much inspired by my recent trip to the Society for Ecological Restoration's Midwest-Great Lakes Chapter meeting. Unfortunately, it's hard to find living native plants this time of year, which seriously limited my ideas for activities. I ended up searching the internet for "middle school science fair ideas" and browsed until I came across "how to use a dichotomous key" also known as "how to identify plants"-- my specialty! (That is, unless it's a house or garden plant).
But I just couldn't shake my original idea, especially since Laingsburg, MI is a small, rural town (pop. 1,283 in 2010), so some residents would likely have old fields (former croplands that are no longer cultivated) on their property that could really benefit from prairie restoration. The opportunity to evangelize some prairie love was too good to pass up. So I settled on making two posters for my booth:
But I still had no idea how any of this was going to go.
It turned out to be really fun.
A lot of kids seemed to be "making the rounds" and stopped at any booth with an opening. Most had some sort of chaperone in the vicinity. Some parents participated with their kid, encouraging them along the way; while others stayed at a distance, wandering around while the kids did their own thing. More often than not, a student would stop to learn how to key out an oak leaf, and the parent would read my other poster about native plants (and occasionally pick up one of my Wild Ones brochures)! So even though I didn't talk to the students much about native plants, I still feel like I reached a lot of parents (who are the ones making the decisions about gardens and old fields, anyway).
I didn't realize I was really reaching any kids until I heard "Go to the booth with the leaves! It's so much fun!" from a crowd of middle schoolers. Twice.
Hearing that sort of excitement in the voice of a girl who had just figured out how to tell a Red from a Black oak, and was now telling her friends to go do the same, was incredible.
Even if the two voices I heard belonged to the only two kids who enjoyed my booth at all, I'll still consider the event a great success. Whether those kids just liked being able to test themselves with the key and were proud to get the answer right, or were actually excited about the plant identification and learning about oaks, I still feel like I contributed something real to the science fair. And I'm glad I did.
Next time your school or workplace asks for volunteers for an "outreach opportunity," consider it. You never know who you will actually "reach."
From left to right: QiuXia, Brian, Kristen, and myself. (Yujin is taking the photo).
All my best,
PS: I've also learned that real bloggers might need to have a better camera than the one on their iPhone. Sorry for all the blurriness. I need to unearth my point-and-shoot, which I know will try a little harder to focus.
Acknowledgements: I wouldn't have known about or been encouraged to participate in the Laingsburg Middle School Science Fair if it weren't for my friends in the Horticultural Organization of Graduate Students (HOGS) and MSU Graduate Women in Science (GWIS), and the good times we had at the MSU Girl's Math & Science Day. Another big thank-you goes to Lansing's Wild Ones chapter, who gave me a big stack of brochures to give out and a bunch of good resources and ideas for my native plants poster. You all are the best!