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Turning Halloween Into a Science

Happy Halloween! In honor of my favorite holiday, I thought I'd share the Halloween-themed out-of-school activity I experienced here in the District of Columbia.

I spent Friday morning learning about high school science walking through the rooms of a "haunted house" at American University with some students from the Washington Math, Science and Technology Public Charter School. Other schools in the area will also be visiting the house today, and this past weekend, nearly 600 local residents visited.

The rooms, repurposed into spooky chambers, were incorporated into science lessons, given by American University faculty and students as part of their first Science Spooktacular to encourage interest in science. About 100 of the university's science students helped with the event in some way.

"Science outreach is a broad term for trying to raise interest in science by injecting it into people's lives outside the context of the classroom," said Nathan Harshman, an associate professor of physics at American University, who organized the event. "This event was part of a broader effort to recruit and retain science students at American University specifically, and more generally, for the STEM fields everywhere. We hope students from local schools are encouraged by having science-based fun at the college level."
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On my own visit, I stopped by Frankenstein's laboratory to learn about electric currents, Tesla coils, and a Van de Graaf generator that jolted a monster into action. In the "Dead Zone," a "zombie farmer" talked to us about the impact pollution can have on the environment, and we hunted around for alternative fuel sources that don't release greenhouse gases. In another room, we stood among the rubble from an alien-spaceship crash, discussing the components of the electromagnetic spectrum and how infrared light could help us see through walls; we found an alien hiding behind one.

A few other rooms/activities included a "Chamber of Skeletons" to teach students about comparative anatomy, a lesson on using forensic science to solve a horrific murder, the "Room of Absolute Darkness" on acoustics, and a lesson on chemical transformations in Dr. Jekyll's lab.

The kids in my group not only were eager to answer questions and participate, they also said they were having a great time. Their teacher said they later called the experience the "best field trip ever," even over their senior field trip.

American University is not the only place with Halloween-themed science happenings this year. See here and here, among others.

Photo: Jonathan Newport, an adjunct instructor in AU's Department of Physics, as Dr. Frankenstein. Credit: Jeff Watts.

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