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Science should be for everyone, and so should science camp
Explore with Eberly allows adults to get hands-on science experience
27 July 2020

Every summer, roughly 500 children pass through the Office of Science Outreach’s Science-U summer camps, and each season, their parents share similar thoughts at pickup time as campers excitedly relay their experience from the day: “If only we had these when I was a kid, maybe I’d have gone into science!” or “She was talking about making a rocket—I wish I could do that!” 

There certainly are fantastic science outreach programs out there for adults. Some are lectures on campus, while others take advantage of the 21-and-over audience to host talks in local breweries. But many of these programs have a decidedly formal, less hands-on approach.

So, taking these parents’ comments to heart, the Office of Science Outreach began developing an interactive science program for adults, and this past January the office held its first Explore with Eberly event. To help develop their first event, they turned to longtime-partner Katie Mantz, who has directed their forensics-themed children’s camps for years. Twenty-three adults participated in the inaugural event, which focused on using forensic science to solve a hypothetical crime. 

“There are a lot of misconceptions about forensic science, much of it attributable to how it is portrayed on TV, and these participants were very keen on learning how real forensic science is done,” said Mantz.

 

Explore with Eberly participants examine and compare samples of trace evidence, such as an unknown white powder found at the scene.
Explore with Eberly participants examine and compare samples of trace evidence, including an unknown white powder found at the scene.

 

After a brief presentation about forensic science, Mantz introduced them to the day’s crime: After an anonymous 911 call, a professor is found unconscious in Whitmore Lab; while she claims that she simply tripped, inconsistencies in her story and an unknown white powder scattered about the lab suggest otherwise.

 

At the scene of the crime, participants collect blood samples for later testing.
At the scene of the crime, participants collect blood ​​​​​​samples for later testing.

 

The participants then proceeded in groups to analyze the crime scene, collect evidence, and submit questions to witnesses. As Mantz pointed out, evidence collection, lab analysis, and witness interrogation are never done by the same person—despite what some TV dramas might lead you to believe. But the participants did conduct their own lab analyses, which included testing the scene for blood and drugs, fingerprinting, and comparing footprints.

 

To determine whether samples from the scene contained blood, participants added chemicals that would react with hemoglobin to release oxygen bubbles and turn the samples green.
To determine whether samples from the scene contained blood, participants added chemicals that would react with hemoglobin to release oxygen bubbles and turn the samples green.

 

After processing the lab results and procuring additional witness testimony, the participants began putting the final pieces of the case together. It seemed that the professor in question was involved in an altercation with a colleague after they had worked together creating narcotics in the chemistry lab. And with that, the case was closed. 

 

Participants had the opportunity to analyze evidence with high-powered microscopes as well as other lab equipment that forensic scientists use.
Participants had the opportunity to analyze evidence with high-powered microscopes as well as other lab equipment that forensic scientists use.

 

“They asked great, in-depth questions and eagerly attacked the case and the lab work,” said Mantz. “Every facet of the case was debated and discussed. At the end of the day, it was such a joy for me to see their pride in solving the case.”

Participants were also treated to a presentation by professor Mitch Holland about forensic genealogy—how genealogical data is used to solve crimes—and they asked a number of in-depth scientific and ethical questions, such as about the controversy surrounding police access to results from personal genealogy platforms. 

“This CSI experience was amazing, and truly sheds light on what forensic scientists do in a fun and hands-on way,” said one camper. “Whether you are considering a change of career, or simply enjoy finding out more about 'true crime' shows and books, this was an all-around great experience.”

“This was a great workshop,” said another camper. “Finally I get to have as much fun as my kids do at Science-U!”

With the success of this event, the Office of Science Outreach plans to continue the Explore with Eberly program in the future, expanding the program to include other fields of science.

“Explore with Eberly is such a wonderful program,” said Mantz. “Adults also want to enjoy and explore science, learn new things, and apply the benefit of their life experience to solve problems. Explore with Eberly allows us to share the amazing science that happens at Penn State with everyone in the community.”

If you are interested in suggesting a topic for Explore with Eberly, or you would like to attend a future event, please email us at outreach@science.psu.edu for more information.