Eleven rising eighth graders spent a week of their summer vacation on campus immersed in the world of science and technology under the direction of Mark Oreglia, professor in physics.
The young Enrico Fermi Science Interns spent their mornings in hearing lectures and programming computers. They devoted their afternoons to hands-on fieldwork activities designed by Liz Lehman, a curriculum developer and school support services associate at the Center for Elementary Mathematics and Science Education.
Participants received an introduction to the esoteric field of high-energy particle physics from Lauren Tompkins, a postdoctoral fellow in physics, Joe O’Gallagher, a senior scientist at the Enrico Fermi Institute, and Oreglia.
“Talking to the kids about particle physics and the Large Hadron Collider was fantastic,” Tompkins said. “They were highly engaged, asking insightful questions that showed they were thinking about and processing what I was saying. Particle physics can be daunting to some people because it deals with a world of invisible objects, but these kids were eager to learn about it.”
The students created their own websites under the guidance of Mary Heintz, a systems administrator with the electronics design group in high-energy physics. (Links to their pages  can be found on the high-energy physics outreach page).
They also programmed microprocessors, which are similar to devices that control cars and home thermostats. Students learned how to control LEDs and make a speaker play different notes. The final project was to build a memory game using the skills they learned to control lights, sounds and buttons.
Afternoons were spent in fieldwork that Lehman designed around the theme of water ecology and conservation. Investigations included identifying how water is used, measuring how much water is consumed by different uses, and experimenting with ways water can be purified before use.
The students spread throughout Hyde Park, collecting data that they used to create a water usage map . The map includes very visible uses such as landscaping irrigation, and less obvious uses such as bricks made with water that are used in buildings and sidewalks.
The students faced regular challenges to gathering information, finding ways to solve problems and developing techniques to test water usage. For example, when measuring water usage at a drinking fountain, they looked at how much water makes it into the mouth and how much goes down the drain. If using an institutional toilet that doesn’t have a tank, how can one measure how much water each flush uses?
They also created water filtration systems. Organized into teams, the students were challenged to see which team could make the “best” device to purify samples of dirty water. Lehman was pleased with their efforts.
“I was amazed at how enthusiastic they were in trying to come up with the best solution. Each team took a different approach to solving the challenge and revised their ideas when the first, and sometimes second, filter didn’t meet expectations. The engineering design process really came to life,” Lehman said.
Oreglia started the program in 2006 as part of the “Broader Impacts” requirement of a National Science Foundation grant. Oreglia wanted to influence youngsters who may not have envisioned college in their future.
“I really hope that this experience might encourage them to consider college and think about careers in science and technology,” he said. The interns, who attend local schools, including Kenwood Academy, Murray Language Academy and the University of Chicago Charter School, Woodlawn campus, must acquire recommendations from their science teachers to enroll. NSF funds cover the cost of materials, microprocessors and incidentals.
This was the second year Oregila’s group has partnered with the Center for Elementary Mathematics and Science Education. The activities that Lehman and her colleagues designed added a new dimension to the program. “We are educators,” said Oreglia, “but Liz’s work gave us a new perspective on working with young students. We learned a lot.”
Enthusiastic participants have asked if the program could be longer or if they could come again. “I really regret that we cannot extend the program because of the demands of research, but the idea of bringing back ‘alumni’ is intriguing,” Oreglia said. “I am considering inviting back students who have participated and engaging them in teaching new students.”