This is the beginning of my third month as a summer intern at ECHO. My internship was organized under a grant through the University of Vermont (UVM) provided by the National Science Foundation (NSF). The aim of this grant is providing adult patrons with opportunities for education and awareness about current trends in the chemical industry.My colleague Eliza and I are appointed members of the “Green Team”, a small team of ECHO and UVM staff whose goal is to educate our visitors about the basics of green chemistry and how the field of chemistry affects our daily lives. A main focus of my time at ECHO has been developing and staffing an exhibit on biodegradable plastics. Biodegradable plastics are made specifically to mimic polymers (long chains of repeating sub-units, i.e. DNA strands and silk) that are naturally occurring. Starches and other organic materials are incorporated into the strands of these polymers so they will biodegrade after disposal. Degradation occurs as bacteria and other microorganisms seek the starch in the polymer chain as food.
On an ordinary day at ECHO, I sit at my exhibit and talk to waves of people including school-aged campers, families and meandering adults. I try to adapt my speech and props based on my audience however best I can so my two underlying messages are clear to all: 1. chemistry is not scary, but actually really awesome; and 2. biodegradable plastics can be an environmentally friendly alternative for traditional plastic.
One particular day at the exhibit, I was interacting with a group of young girls, approximately eleven years old. They were engaged and asked really analytical questions throughout my presentation. Fifteen minutes later, one of the girls ran back towards me. She was dragging her little brother and a frantic mother behind her. This girl gave me a smile and said "Mom check out these biodegradable polymers!" She essentially repeated my entire script and even used my props to her family. I was stunned. I couldn't believe that she retained the information but was even more amazed that she could explain the material to her mother and brother. The two kids then ran away from the workbench hand in hand and the mother stayed behind. She thanked me and talked with me further about the chemical industry. I grasped something valuable from that little girl: learning occurs as part of an active process involving the participation of both the "teacher" and the "learner". I then edited my exhibit script from being lecture-based to a more conversational style. This allows for guests to have a role in their own learning.
As I continue to reflect on my experiences thus far this summer, I am overcome with feelings of accomplishment and pride. I came into this internship with a limited background in public speaking and performing. I will end this summer with the ability to interact with diverse audiences and with a new found confidence. Not only have I learned a lot from this internship, but I have witnessed growth in guests of the ECHO floor.
Until Next Week!...