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Summer Science Allows Harvard Students, Cambridge Kids to Play With Slime and Sound

By Valerie J. Macmillan

In an non-air-conditioned classroom in North Cambridge, 20 elementary school students sit in groups, trying to figure out who kidnaped Janet Jackson.

Their teacher, Edward A. Villavencio '96-`97, has been working on a lot mysteries with kids from all over the Boston area. So far, they've cracked some big cases: the ingredients of slime and how to make sound, for starters. Today, TLC (thin layer chromatography) is the subject of choice.

It's all part of the Summer Science Program, sponsored by the Phillip Brooks House Association (PBHA). Seven undergraduates who participate in the term-time ExperiMentor Program are taking part of their summer to teach children participating in the PBHA summer camps about science.

Villavicencio's Class

Villavicencio shows the ransom note he's received to the class. Six suspects with pens, all college-aged teachers, are rounded up in the room. Villavicencio asks for advice on how to figure out who did the deed.

At once, the children pummel him some suggestions:

"Fingerprints!"

"Handwriting!"

"What color pen?"

At this, the suspects hold up their pens. Unfortunately, every pen has black ink. Fingerprinting isn't possible and everyone agrees that people can disguise their writing.

So what now?

This time, the kids are silent.

Then, Villavicencio starts asking about colors. What color do yellow and blue make when you mix them together?

"Green."

"Red and blue?"

"Purple."

"And if you mix all the colors together, will you get a light color or a dark color?"

There is a small pause before one boy says, "Really dark!"

"Brown," some kids say, trying to shout over the ones who are saying "Black, black!"

Now comes the science--if the ink in each of the pens can be broken down to find out what colors make it up, the class can figure out who kidnaped Janet Jackson.

Each group gets a cup with a thin layer of acetone in it, along with a suspect, complete with pen.

Amy Chen, group five's suspect, warns the group not to smell the cup or touch the acetone.

Beau pinches his nose as the three girls in the group, Kathleen, Jenny and Iliana, gather around and make a dot on a slip of paper so the ink can bleed into its base colors.

The group begins to argue.

"They said not to put the dot in," Kathleen warns Iliana, who is carefully inserting the paper into the acetone.

Watermelon, who has been whispering with Beau for most of the class, asks, "Can I put on the tape?" but Jenny is already holding the cup for Kathleen, who carefully tapes it in.

Now the waiting begins, but between the heat in the room and five children between the age of seven and nine, it doesn't last long.

One of the girls picks up the cup to see if the ink has separated yet, and the rest of the group protests. After a bit more arguing, Beau notes that green has bled out. The group is excited, and eagerly waits for Villavicencio to come around with the original note to see which suspect did it.

When he arrives, they discuss their guesses in whispers. Most of the class eventually votes for Danielle, whom Villavicencio confirms is the guilty party.

"YES!" comes a voice from the back.

The class ends with a series of questions from Villavicencio, which the kids respond to by raising their hands.

"Who wants to make toys next week? Who's hot? Who learned something today? Who wants to play with glue next week?"

"I want to play with ketchup," a boy from group one says.

The Teachers

"We provide a supplement for the curriculum of the camps," Villavicencio says. "We provide a person who actually teaches the lesson."

The teachers are mostly undergraduates who participate in the ExperiMentors program through PBHA. Some are full-time volunteers who teach five days a week; others are part-time volunteers who teach three times a week.

Many of the part-time volunteers are splitting their summer between this and scientific research in a University laboratory.

Daihung Do '95, who goes by "Dai" (leading to some interesting misspellings of his name by his classes), says the positive response from his students can really make his day, and the other teachers agree.

"Hey--listen to this one," Do says, reading from a journal entry by one of his students at the weekly Sunday meeting for all the teachers. "`I like the experiment that you gave us. I don't know how to make the slime. But I will try.'" Do grins.

The journal entry continues, "But where did you learn these experiment anyway. But I like the slime the most. I like the sleeping experiment second the most."

The other teachers are looking through their journals too. Scott Campea '97 comes up with his favorite--"`I didn't think science could be fun but it is Scott is fun and is understanding.'"

All the teachers smile and jokingly complain that their kids don't come up with things that are that awesome. Villavicencio asks Campea to read that again.

"That's cool," Villavicencio says.

Jennifer Morazes '96, a committee chair who helped develop Summer Science, comes up with some of her favorites.

First, there are a few crayoned or markered pictures of her holding beakers. Then she pulls out a sheet of paper with a pencil drawing of a beaker with huge stars surrounding it.

"He liked the slime," she says with a smile.

Another journal entry by a student of hers named Amanda has the words "I like the slim the most today," in fluorescent crayon above a picture of "Jenn."

Lenna Georgopoulos '97 wows the rest of the group by pushing a skewer through a balloon without popping it.

For just a minute, the room sounds like it's full of students instead of teachers--everyone exclaims how cool it is and grabs a balloon.

Unfortunately, not everyone is as talented as Lenna. Jennifer Mozeiko, an Extension School student, tries several times, causing the room to jump every time it pops.

The group members begin to kid each other, each imagining horror scenarios of standing in front of the class and saying "Watch this...,"only to have their balloon pop.

The group is discussing making slime, and those that have already done it are giving tips to the others.

"Make sure you have some paper towels," Do says, grinning.

Finally, Morazes gets the bamboo skewer through the balloon without popping it.

She gets applause, but is quickly overshadowed by Do, who manages to put two skewers through the same balloon and slip them back out again.

Villavicencio uses a vinegar/baking soda reaction to blow up a balloon. Everyone freezes, hands over their ears, waiting for the balloon to pop.

It doesn't, but it takes a minute for conversation to start again--everyone is eyeing the balloon.

This is part of a lesson for two weeks from now, the "firefighter" lesson, where the kids will learn about putting out candles with carbon dioxide and making a gas fill up a balloon.

Clarissa Bonanno '96 shrugs and says, "I don't have any more balloons."

"Why not?"

"The Kids got into them."

Everyone nods, knowingly.

Meanwhile, people read through the suggested lesson plans being passed out.

"Slime is vocabulary word, Ed?" Jennifer Mozeiko asks.

"Some of them don't know how to spell it," he answers.

Bonanno's Class

Bonanno has lucked out as far as classrooms go; she has air conditioning.

On the third floor of the Cambridge College building on Mass. Ave., her junior high school-aged class is trying the same experiment as Villavicencio's class did.

She reads the note, which says that if the kidnappers do not get $50, "you will never see Bill Clinton again."

The class doesn't seem impressed. One student mutters, "So? It isn't worth $50 to get him back."

Bonanno gives the suspects their pens, and Diego, a counselor at the summer camp, is named a suspect. The class issues a collective "ooooh." Xiomara, a student who sits on the left hand side of the room, is also picked as a suspect.

Later, when Diego leaves the room for a little while, the group agrees he is the type to kidnap someone.

Clarissa passes out the acetone, and the girls begin to test the ink samples.

"This one's black and this one's green," one girl says to another.

"Yours came out purple," one girl tells a suspect.

"Clarissa--that's kind of weird--black turning into yellow," one student says.

As they compare their samples with the ransom note, Xiomara throws her head back and groans. Her ink has separated, and yellow has bled out. The ink from the ransom note also gives off yellow.

"You're guilty!" a girl in Xiomara's group says to the groaning suspect.

"How do you know?" Bonanno asks.

The room fills with several voices explaining it, first to Bonanno and then to each other.

As their journals are passed out and the students write down what happened, Bonanno is grinning.

Xiomara is laughing. "I still want my 50 bucks!" she says.

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