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Lecturer: Engage kids with science
Speaker finds chemistry in lab
North Georgia College & State University professor Michael McGinnis peforms an experiment during a lecture Wednesday. - photo by Alyssa LaRenzie

What’s next

All lectures in the North Georgia Community Connections series are free and open to the public. They will be held from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Wednes-days at the Hampton Park library, 5345 Settingdown Road on the following schedule:

• Oct. 13: “Mobilizing Creativity: Artmaking, Community and an Airstream Trailer”

• Oct. 20: “Leadership in Uncertain Times”

• Oct. 27: “Preparing Teachers for 21st Century Students”

• Nov. 3: “Childhood Obesity”

On the first day of professor Michael McGinnis’ general chemistry class, he started with a question.

“Why do you add salt to water before you boil the pasta?” the North Georgia College & State University professor recalled asking his students that day.

He then led them to the lab, where they were asked to test their theories. The only possible answer left was that it changes the taste.

“Then let’s taste it,” McGinnis said to the class. “Now let’s go over the syllabus.”

The NGCSU chemistry department head emphasized the importance of asking questions and getting students involved in science education during a lecture Wednesday at the Hampton Park Library.

“Engaging Science Students K-12: Motivating Tomorrow’s Scientists” was the third lecture in the university’s Community Connections series.

Scientific experiments, demonstrations and other hands-on activities get children interested in what they’re learning, he said.

True to his message, McGinnis captivated his audience with some chemistry demonstrations, such as the “Halloween reaction,” in which a series of mixed chemicals turns bright orange then instantly black.

“It’s those kinds of demonstrations that allow my students to stay awake at 8:30 in the morning,” he said. “... It’s about thinking critically and logically, not just giving them a worksheet, but giving them something to talk about.”

McGinnis also discussed grade-school education in Georgia versus the nation, as well as the U.S. in comparison to the world.

Georgia often ranks near the bottom of the U.S., he said, and has set lower standards than required in national testing.

In addition, he said, science is not tested until the fourth grade, giving teachers no motivation to begin science education before then.

The U.S. has fallen into the lower rankings of education compared to other developed nations, especially in science.

He said Finland, which consistently takes a top spot, has shorter school days, starts children at age 7 and spends less per student.

The talk sparked discussion about how to best reform education among the small group in attendance.

Kim Lovell said the lecture and the group talk “firms up the ideas [she had] that we do need education reform not only in our state, but in our nation.”

The home-schooling mother said the free lecture caught her eye because she spends a lot of time with her 8- and 12-year-old children learning about science.

Lovell said she gained a new perspective on teaching her family’s favorite subject.

She plans to return for the next lecture, “”Mobilizing Creativity: Artmaking, Community and an Airstreams Trailer,” on Oct. 13.

“I think what they’re providing is a good experience and good information for us, as far as the community,” Lovell said. “I would really encourage people to come and be more aware.”

McGinnis said that providing community outreach has helped his department drum up interest in the subject.

Chemistry majors at NGCSU have more than tripled in the three years since the department put more emphasis on discussions and demonstrations outside the classroom.

Sticking to the theme of his lecture, he’s arming those future scientists with questions instead of just talk.

“Sometimes it just takes that one individual, and you never know who it’s going to be,” he said. “Who’s going to be the next one that’s going to keep asking questions so that we can find that next discovery?”