As in past years, members of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology volunteered their time and talents to the third Feria de Ciencias, a science fair held completely in Spanish for bilingual school children.

The Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) partners with En Nuestra Lengua (In Our Language), an organization that develops academic skills in Spanish for bilingual children, to host the annual event. The 2020 event was held in March at Bach Elementary School, Ann Arbor. En Nuestra Lengua students are from schools in the Ann Arbor and Detroit areas.

Siria Gámez works on a wildlife tracks science art project with the students. Image credit: Kristel Sánchez

Kristel Sánchez, an EEB graduate student, helped organize and coordinate Feria de Ciencias where activities ranged from ecology to neurobiology to chemistry. Some 200 schoolchildren from 4 to 12 years old rotated between stations featuring “a huge range of topics and activities,” Sánchez said. They explored a sheep’s brain to learn about neurons and the brain, they studied cells under a microscope, investigated fossils and learned about predators.

“The goal of the event is first, to expose kids to science, motivate them to learn about science and to be curious about the world around them,” Sánchez said. “But also, we want them to see role models who are like them, who have a similar background, and who speak their native language.”

University of Michigan undergraduate and graduate students and postdoctoral researchers, 22 altogether, volunteered to make this event successful. Taking part from EEB were graduate students Eric Gulson-Castillo and Siria Gámez and postdoctoral fellow, Monica Acosta.

Gámez’s booth highlighted the wildlife of Michigan. She wanted “to give the kids a chance to experience a small part of the natural world that isn't always accessible to them – be it because of limitations to access outdoor activities or access to wildlife-centric educational materials in Spanish. I wanted the kids to get excited about local species in a way that's fun an exciting for them.” She included a photo ID station with a Spanish-language ID guide, a mystery station with explanations of the animal's diet and silicon replicas of the animal's scat, and a wildlife track impression art station.

“The scat station was unsurprisingly really popular with the kids,” said Gámez. “Poop is fascinating for them but the cool thing is that it gave us a chance to teach them about ecology and how these animals have to eat certain things to survive. One student was especially surprised to learn that there are bears and wolves in Michigan, which just highlights how important it is to foster a love and appreciation for the wildlife that we have here at home.”

Volunteers teach curious children about the brain and neurons. Image credit: Kristel Sánchez

Students explored the general biology of birds at Gulson and Acosta’s station with multiple bird specimens. “We chose some specimens based on their charisma (e.g. eastern screech owl, northern cardinal), odd morphology and behavior (white-winged crossbill) and migration strategies (blackpoll warbler),” Gulson said.

Acosta presented printed examples of internal and external parasites that affect birds, “to discuss a different ‘cryptic’ aspect of bird biology that most people do not think about. I think she had some interesting COVID-19 questions stem from that.” 

Gulson said that one child was fascinated with the bufflehead, a small duck specimen. “He came by four to five times and explained how he had always wanted to get close to wild ducks, but the birds never allowed him to. This was as close as he had been to one!” 

“I always enjoy talking about birds and sparking people’s curiosity about them,” Gulson explained about what motivated him to volunteer. “I also think it is our responsibility as a scientist to share our work and knowledge with the general public. 

“This sort of event makes it possible to help people see scientists in a more personable way, making our work seem less foreign. This plus the things that Kristel mentioned as the goals of the event: I think those are really important!”

“Representation in science matters,” said Gámez. “As a girl growing up in a big city like Miami, Florida, I didn't have access to that quintessentially American experience of camping and experiencing the great outdoors - I also didn't have any role models that looked like or spoke like me. I participated in this event so that I could engage with kids at their level - talking excitedly about nature and animals in their language, something I wish I had but can now help make real for other kids.

“I think it's incredibly powerful to have role models in science that look like you and speak the same language as you do – so doing this creates a space where the students feel seen.”