The pandemic didn’t stop volunteers from holding the annual Feria de Ciencias, a science fair for bilingual students in late March 2021.

The Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans (SACNAS) collaborates with En Nuestra Lengua and the University of Michigan to bring the event to elementary students with most of the dialogue in Spanish.

In addition to the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, 21 U-M volunteers (mostly graduate students along with a few faculty and staff) hailed from the following departments: Anthropology; Chemical Biology; Chemistry; Civil and Environmental Engineering; Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology; Neuroscience; Pharmacology; and the School for Environment and Sustainability.

Dissecting owl pellets.

“Given that we had to do the event through Zoom, we had to completely change the format of the event,” said Kristel Sánchez, an EEB graduate student who was an event organizer. “In the past, when it has been in person, we have tables with activities that take 5-10 minutes to complete. The kids rotate among the tables and get to see a diverse range of topics and activities. This year because of the Zoom format, each class was paired with a team of scientists that developed a 20-30 minute activity designed for that specific age group. For certain activities we had to send materials to the students’ homes ahead of time. Another difference is that in a normal year volunteers interact with over 100 students throughout the event, this year each team interacted with 15-20 students at a time during two sessions. This was nice because volunteers had more time to interact with students and kids got to know the scientist volunteers a little better.”

Ann Arbor school students who are enrolled in En Nuestra Lengua from pre-K through 5th grade participate.

EEB Research Professor Liliana Cortés Ortiz said, “I believe that elementary school children are very receptive to new opportunities. Making science activities fun may encourage them to explore new topics and get excited about science. The program “En Nuestra Lengua” is very unique in that most students speak Spanish at home, and the program teaches them how to write and read properly in Spanish, because they mostly learn academics in English at school. These students are thus immersed in a multicultural community and teaching them in Spanish may help them realize the value of learning both languages and exalt the values of their cultural heritage.”

“I think it is important to engage young students in science and especially in the context of their cultures when they are distinct from the typical U.S. student,” said EEB Professor John Vandermeer who took part for the first time and taught the wonders of a Mobius strip, “sort of a mathematical exercise.”

One of Vandermeer’s favorite aspects of taking part in Feria de Ciencia is “talking with students who have not yet become cynical.”

Cortés-Ortiz’s group dissected an owl pellet to teach about the diets of the owls. Compacted in the owl’s gizzard into a tight pellet they found regurgitated undigested material such as teeth, skulls, and other bones. One of her favorite parts was “watching the kids get very excited with every single finding in their pellets!” Volunteers sent owl pellets with a key of bird bones to students' homes for the activity.

“I really enjoy talking about birds with people outside science,” said EEB graduate student Eric Gulson. “I think it is our responsibility as scientists to make our work more accessible, and am privileged to have excellent Spanish skills and am happy to communicate about science in Spanish.” 

EEB graduate student Sophia Moon participated in Feria de Ciencia because she believes it is valuable to talk to young students about what scientists do. “We can serve as role models they can imagine themselves becoming. I am not able to speak Spanish well, but I really enjoyed being a part of a team that promoted this sharing of knowledge and enthusiasm to kids.” 

Gulson, Moon and Stefania Almazán Casali, a U-M graduate student in the School for Environment and Sustainability, explained how birds migrate and use magnetic fields for navigation. “I showed students (over Zoom, of course) how iron fillings can be used to visualize the magnetic field around a magnet, which I think everybody thought was cool,” Gulson said. He loved “watching children react to something they didn’t expect.”

Moon added, “As I do not speak Spanish, Eric and Stefania helped me by translating the introduction part of our presentation that I delivered to the kids. I was only expecting to help with the preparation of the materials and presentation, but it felt nice to be able to present in Spanish that the kids could understand and engage with. I really enjoyed seeing the kids' enthusiasm.” 

Gulson said that the main challenge was coming up with something that would hold children’s attention virtually. “My exceptionally creative teammates made a coloring worksheet that I think really helped, for example.”

“I think having it in person is exciting, because the kids can move from station to station and be exposed to many different activities,” said Cortés-Ortiz. “However, I feel that having the activity online gave students the opportunity to focus on a single topic and explore it more deeply. The only challenge was to send the materials to all the students previous to the event, but the coordinators did a wonderful job and everything went smoothly.”

“I was very much into the explanation of the topic when one student stopped me to let me know that there was another student in the Zoom waiting room (which I had not seen) … at second grade they were already extremely proficient with the Zoom platform and they clearly were very observant … a great quality for a scientist!” noted Cortés-Ortiz, who is already planning an activity to lead for next year!

Read more in previous EEB web news

Learning how birds migrate and use magnetic fields for navigation during Feria de Ciencias via Zoom in March 2021.