Utah State University freshman Honors student Linsey Johnson knows that many people are intimidated by science, but she’s discovered that the more they learn about the subject the more enthusiastic they become.
The Undergraduate Research Fellow’s own interest in science was heightened in 2008 when she traveled with her high school physics teacher and two classmates to Switzerland’s European Organization for Nuclear Research — better known as CERN. At the world’s largest particle physics laboratory and home of the Large Hadron Collider, Johnson observed scientists exploring the basic fundamentals of matter.
“It was cool — I liked being in that atmosphere,” says Johnson, a high school Sterling Scholar in science who was named the first valedictorian of Utah County’s newly established Salem Hills High School. “Everyone was so excited and passionate about what they were doing. I started thinking then about a career in physics teaching.”
While still in high school and eager to start on her chosen path, Johnson organized a series of hands-on science activities she led with more than 200 fifth grade students at four schools in the Nebo School District.
“I led the five steps of the scientific method using an experiment similar to what’s being done with the Large Hadron Collider at CERN,” she says. “I also included a few random activities to pique the students’ interest in science.”
Among those activities was the infamous Diet Coke and Mentos geyser.
“That experiment always got a big reaction from the students,” Johnson says.
As part of the project, she surveyed the students before and after the activities about their interest in science.
“The results were a dramatic rise in student interest and enjoyment in science,” Johnson says. “It was more fun to see than my trip to Switzerland. The students got so excited about science.”
Her efforts were rewarded in March 2009 with a first place “Focus on Children Award” from the Utah chapter of Family, Career and Community Leaders of America.
Following her school year experience, Johnson developed a summer science camp experience for youngsters.
“I organized activities similar to what we’d used in the classroom, charged an amount comparable to a typical week-long sports camp and set up the program in my parents’ backyard,” she says.
The response from neighbors was enthusiastic. Johnson soon filled her camp roster with about 30 children. She led a similar week-long camp with 15 children at her aunt’s home in Fillmore, Utah.
“At the end of summer, parents were asking me to contact them about their children participating next year,” she says.
Encouragement from parents is important for children, Johnson says.
“If parents aren’t excited about science or if they express fear about science, kids will follow suit,” she says. “If parents are excited, kids also respond with excitement. And allowing kids to get involved in experiments always increases their interest.”
It’s an observation Johnson’s USU faculty mentor Shane Larson is also gleaning from the College of Science’s Science Unwrapped presentation series. The free programs, held monthly at USU for people of all ages, are designed to spark participants’ interest in science in a relaxed, family friendly atmosphere.
“We’ve discovered that the hands-on activities we offer following each presentation are as important as the presentations themselves,” says Larson, assistant professor of physics.
As part of a research project, Johnson is working with Larson to create activities to complement future Science Unwrapped presentations and developing tools to evaluate participants’ responses.
“Good teaching is the key to developing students’ interest in science,” she says. “That’s the reason I want to become a teacher.”
Writer: Mary-Ann Muffoletto, 435-797-3517, email@example.com