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Rutgers researchers teach science to local students

<p>Rutgers University postdoctoral associate researcher Kenneth McGuinness said he helps students to think about the diversity of life by taking them outside for lessons.</p>

Rutgers University postdoctoral associate researcher Kenneth McGuinness said he helps students to think about the diversity of life by taking them outside for lessons.

Researchers in the Rutgers Evolution of Nanomachines In Geospheres and Microbial Ancestors (ENIGMA) organization began a program to teach astrobiology lessons to students in local schools, according to an article from Rutgers Today.

The ENIGMA program, which is funded by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), studies if life can form on other planets and how humans can detect it, according to the article. Kenneth McGuinness, a postdoctoral associate researcher in the program, visits students between fourth and eighth grade at McKinley Community School and Greater Brunswick Charter School to teach them about extraterrestrial life. The students called themselves the “ENIGMA Club.” 

Janice McDonnell, associate professor and Science Engineering Technology (SET) agent in the Department of Marine and Coastal Sciences, works with the Rutgers 4-H program and helped write the NASA grant to receive funding for outreach programs. NASA helped to provide material on effective education methods and the ENIGMA program modifies it to best suit the needs of its students, McGuinness said. 

“What we found is that augmenting (NASA’s) material as well as continuing to use it has been really helpful because we’re working with experts in all different types of fields,” McGuinness said. “We have the ability to really hone in on the material that will inspire and really motivate these students to think and use their imagination.”

As part of the lessons, McGuinness asks students to examine what is considered to be alive and what is not, and has them go outside to try and figure out which parts of the environment are living organisms. 

“We’re bringing them outside and they are seeing the diversity of life in a way they never noticed. There’s a pond filled with crickets behind McKinley and they noticed the molting of cicada on a tree and they were amazed,” McGuinness said, according to the article. “It gets them thinking about what life is. Is life green? Would alien life look like us? People at NASA are asking the same questions.”

McGuinness has a variety of other activities for the students, including making solar systems out of beads, learning to use a microscope to view organisms or teaching them about protein models, according to the article. In one activity, McGuinness asked the students to imagine what an alien would look like on a certain planet. Josue, a fifth grader at McKinley Community School, built an alien from planet Jupiter out of clay and named it “Jomama.”

"Josue gave Jomama the ability to eat gas because Jupiter is a gaseous planet. You never know — some form of Jomama might be discovered one day,” McGuinness said.  

McGuinness said he thinks the science programs also serve as healthy ways for students to express themselves. He said he noticed one of his fourth grade students with behavioral issues responded positively to the clay activity.

“Out of the five times I’ve seen her, in this exercise, she was the most behaved I’ve seen her,” McGuinness said. “Given something she enjoys doing, you can just see her smile on her face, grinning from ear to ear.”

Prior to the ENIGMA Club, Rutgers University hosted “Family Science Nights” in the spring to encourage students at New Brunswick schools and their families to get involved. Students are more successful and attentive in school when their families are involved in their academics according to research, said Alesha Vega, community engagement and outreach coordinator for Rutgers’ 4-H science program in the Department of Marine and Coastal Science. 

“When all of the parents came out and were so involved, we knew this was really going to benefit the kids,” Vega said in the article. “And this semester’s classes are just taking it to the next level. We’re introducing students to complex science topics, but also building their confidence and inspiration.” 

The ENIGMA program will receive funding from NASA for outreach programs for approximately three more years, McGuinness said. Its success in New Brunswick schools inspired the team to expand its outreach programs. The ENIGMA program is currently in talks with a new youth recreation center in Highland Park to bring lessons to students there.

McGuinness told Rutgers Today he thinks the ENIGMA Club is a large confidence booster for the students.

“If they see themselves doing this science now, they can take this confidence with them as they get older and know there are people in the science community who can help them succeed,” McGuinness said. 

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