I’m really excited to post about my latest outreach event with Science For All! Before I get started though, I want to give some background on the group.

Science For All is a middle school outreach group started at the University of Minnesota by a handful of graduate students. Unlike many other STEM groups that take a traveling circus approach towards outreach, in which the group goes around to several schools to showcase experiments, SFA takes a different approach by sending the same set of graduate students multiple times to a single school over the school year. Through this approach, mentors can build a rapport with their students and provide what we hope is a greater influence in trying to guide the students towards STEM fields. We work primarily with 8th graders, as this formative year often helps dictate where students direct their interests and electives in high school.

During out visits to our schools, we come prepared with an experiment and some structure to get started. We usually try to incorporate the scientific method and its principles in our experiments with the students. Often there is some initial set up and then the students are allowed to relatively freely come up with hypotheses to test.

In our latest experiment, we worked with the students to create dye-sensitized solar cells. These solar cells used raspberry juice to absorb incoming sunlight and power the system. As is expected, a good portion of this experiment followed a defined protocol, but after that the students were allowed to experiment with different light sources, energy different outputs, and the use of filters and polarizers. The students observed the effect of each of these variables and came up with their own conclusions for how they worked.

I want to highlight this experiment in particular because of its tie to plants. I view solar cell technology as mankind’s approach to doing what plants already do so well - harvest energy from the Sun. The students were familiar with the concept of plants using solar energy, but we went into greater detail by showing them photosynthesis. This allowed us to establish a direct comparison between plants and solar cell technology, giving them context for the interest in this growing industry and powerful renewable resource. By observing how this experiment’s independent variables affected the dependent variables, students even provided their own foresight into how plants might be affected by their environment and how plants can adapt to fit their energy needs.

If you want to learn more about this organization, please visit https://sfa.dl.umn.edu/