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Fifth Floor Science & Activism Fair Showcases Students’ Ability to Use Science for Social Justice

Friday, April 15, 2016

Does learning about social justice make Manhattan Country School students more informed about current events than other middle school students? Do snow peas grow better in a student-designed aquaponics system or in conventional soil? Do gender and age influence students’ color preferences? Can blood splatter analysis allow investigators to solve crimes? Do red-eared sliders’ food preferences make this type of turtle more likely to be invasive species? Do race and income correlate with water and soil quality in different New York City neighborhoods? How does acid rain affect tomato plants? These are just some of the questions explored in the experiments presented at Tuesday’s Science & Activism Fair.

The fair is the culmination of the students’ use of scientific research to design and conduct original experiments and use their findings to advocate for social justice. Students began their projects by asking, “What are things about the world that we want to change or improve?” Once students selected a topic and completed research, they designed experiments that tested a specific variable while controlling for any extraneous influences. After analyzing their data using statistics, students constructed graphs to display their results and draw conclusions. Fifth Floor scientists then wrote a formal lab report and displayed their findings on a presentation board.  Sharing their learning with MCS students, staff, faculty and families allowed seventh- and eighth-graders to explain how science can be a powerful tool for activism and raise awareness of issues that they were passionate about.

Some highlights from Fifth Floor students’ projects:

Liam’s project investigated whether bias in the media influenced people’s perceptions of controversial news topics such as genetically modified organisms and hydraulic fracturing. He discovered that one-sided media coverage significantly influenced viewers’ perceptions, especially when they had limited knowledge on a topic. In order to prevent people from becoming trapped in an idea echo chamber, Liam recommended that informed viewers should try to understand the arguments on both sides of a controversial issue.

Giacomo, Sophia and Julia investigated if brine shrimp, toads and e-coli could be genetically modified using a firefly gene to be bioluminescent. When the gene transfer was only successful in the bacteria, they learned that lateral gene transfer is significantly more efficient in prokaryotic organisms than in eukaryotic organisms because eukaryotes store their DNA in a nucleus.

Izzy’s investigation showed that being provided with a confidence-boosting reward prior to a math test improved students’ test scores. In her conclusion, Izzy argued that this showed how biased expectations about female students, students of color and LGBTQ students can result in different educational outcomes.

Malik’s experiment, “The Effect that Drinks Have on Teeth,” investigated whether Coca-Cola, Gatorade, Red Bull and coffee would leave permanent stains. When his results showed significant color changes when exposed for over a week, Malik concluded that these types of beverages should only be consumed in moderation. He also decided that it was important for him to raise awareness of the issue in order to combat the pressure of ubiquitous advertisements and marketing.

Malia was curious about equity and science education in the United States. Her project, “Are You Smarter than a Middle Schooler?,” showed that within the MCS community, there were no statistically significant differences between races or genders but that more education improved test scores. She argued her results displayed the importance of a diverse learning community.

The Upper School Science Fair showcased seventh- and eighth-graders’ curiosity, creativity and diversity of interests as well as their ability to use science as a tool for activism and advocacy.  

(If you are still wondering, Marcelo’s experiment revealed that MCS students scored 25 percentage points higher on a current events quiz than middle school students at several other schools.)

For image highlights from the Science & Activism Fair, view the images below. (Click images for a larger view.)