Nina Conway makes sure that each child has a colorful balloon, inflated to just the right size. Then Conway passes out sheets of construction paper and packets of salt. The game is simple. Pour the salt on the paper, rub the balloon on your head, then hold the balloon over the salt and watch what happens.
Like magic, the salt pops up and adheres to the balloon.
It could be a new game invented for a child's birthday party. But this is no game. This is science. And these kids are conducting an experiment in static electricity.
"Hey, let's try that again," says a voice from the back of the room.
But Conway has another surprise.
This time she turns out the lights, picks up a three-foot long fluorescent light bulb and holds it in her hand. A moment later she touches the bulb with a wand-like electrical device and lightning sparks, the light bulb glows and the kids go wild with excitement.
Don't tell these kids that science is boring; they know better.
"The kids love it," says Conway, one of about 100 teachers who work with Science Adventures, a Huntington Beach-based organization that brings hands-on programs into about 200 schools all over Southern California.
Conway's recent lesson in electricity is part of a program she is presenting at George Miller School in La Palma. The program, which began in January and will continue through June, is part of the school's GATE (Gifted and Talented) curriculum for fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders.
Sharon Fogg, co-director of Science Adventures and a former classroom teacher, says the program demonstrates that science can be fun.
"It is just so exciting to see kids who may have problems in other areas just come alive when they get involved in hands-on science," she says. "We believe that by introducing children to science at an early age and in a way that is fun, they gain a better understanding of it all through their lives."
Because science is the emphasis this year at George Miller School, the school has contracted with Science Adventures to present the once-a-week classroom programs, according to principal Richard Hoss.
"We felt this goes beyond what we would be able to provide," Hoss says. "And it ties right in with our state framework. It gives information to the kids and gives them firsthand knowledge how to apply the (scientific) principles. It has opened up a whole new world for them."
Since Science Adventures was founded about 12 years ago, the organization has opened up the world of science to hundreds of children in kindergarten through eighth grade. The organization offers a variety of programs ranging from individual classes to summer camps. In addition, Science Adventures offers after-school clubs for children in kindergarten through sixth grade.
Costs for the programs range from $55 for a classroom presentation such as the one Nina Conway conducted on electricity to $160 per child for a 10-week, daylong summer camp. After-school clubs, which run for six weeks, cost about $45 per child.
The organization also offers assembly programs for an entire school, as well as field trips to places such as the Fullerton Arboretum at Cal State Fullerton, where Science Adventures rents office space. Having offices at the arboretum is convenient, Fogg explains, because it is a great place for day camps and ecology hikes.
During the summer, day camps are also held at the UC Riverside Arboretum, the Los Angeles Arboretum and the South Coast Botanical Garden in Palos Verdes. In all, Fogg says there are 56 sites, including several parks, throughout the Southland.
"Summer camp is one of the most popular things we do," Fogg says. "We have a space and rocketry program, and one of the things the kids do is actually build and launch a rocket. We have a science magic program, and they make slime from chemicals mixed together, and we have an Animal Explorers camp where they dissect sharks and squid. And in Animal Explorers, we have mice, rats and even a boa constrictor."
New this summer, Fogg says, is a camp called Science Detective in which kids use science to solve imaginary crimes.
One of Fogg's favorite programs is the electricity lesson, like the one that Conway presented at George Miller School.
"To kids it is the most exciting thing," she says, "no matter what age. When that light bulb lights up, they get so excited, you get goose bumps."
Pupils also get excited when Conway hands out a battery and a tiny electric motor and instructs them to "invent something." The room buzzes as 30 children start the tiny motors and commence to create motor-powered devices. To help them get started, Conway hands out paper plates, paper cups, pipe cleaners, tape, scissors and crayons.
Kristin Cominski, 9, was one of the first children to get her motor running and for the next 15 minutes she cut and pasted and colored, until she had "invented" a new children's toy called a spin-along.
Nearby, Merry Mathavorn, 12, attached her paper cup to the electric motor, then taped two crayons to the cup. When she turned on the motor, the cup spun, moving the crayons across a piece of paper. Merry called her invention "an automatic design."
Other children invented "things to hypnotize people" and electric fans using the paper plate as fan blades. One child even invented an automatic ear cleaner, Conway says. "They get really creative, and the great thing is there is no right or wrong. The only requirement is that they have to invent something that has a purpose and they have to give their invention a name."
Richard Hoss says the kids at George Miller School love the electricity classes. "Children really like seeing learning come alive for them," he says. "It is the participation in learning that promotes understanding."