SENECA FALLS — Four students at St. Patrick’s School watched nervously March 8 as Thomas Oberst carefully poured liquid nitrogen from a tank into a Styrofoam coffee cup. Steam spilled over the cup’s rim and down its side as Oberst, wearing a pair of thick gloves, prepared to transfer the liquid nitrogen into a large test tube.
“Hopefully it won’t crack the glass, but it’s definitely going to burst it a little,” said Oberst, 25.
As he poured the liquid nitrogen into the test tube, a small shower of beaded droplets missed the edge of the tube and skittered across the lab table, causing several students to jump back quickly. Oberst then attached a bright-orange balloon to the edge of the test tube, and he and the students watched the balloon slowly fill with gas.
Four minutes later, the balloon burst with a loud pop. Jagged strips of bright-orange balloon clung to the edge of the test tube, and the floor of the classroom was littered with scraps of orange latex.
Oberst and four St. Patrick’s students spent the afternoon conducting experiments to see which chemical reactions filled the balloon the fastest and the most. Oberst, a graduate student at Cornell University, and the St. Patrick’s students were brought together through the Cornell Science Inquiry Partnership fellowship, which St. Patrick’s has been involved with for the past several years.
Through the program, Cornell graduate students, or fellows, are paired with several classes of middle- and high-school students. The fellows update the science and engineering content taught in the schools and help the younger students learn through inquiry and experimentation.
Mary Beall, sixth- and eighth-grade science teacher at St. Patrick’s, said Oberst came to the school every two weeks to work with her science classes. Beall and Oberst sometimes taught lessons together, and Oberst once taught an entire lesson on energy waves, a subject Beall said she doesn’t have much experience with.
“He really taught me and taught the kids,” Beall said. Oberst and Beall agreed they have learned from each other.
With Oberst in the classroom, Beall knows she has a place to go for answers, she said. Even if Oberst, whose research interests are physics and astronomy, doesn’t know the answer to her question, he can put her in touch with other fellows who can help, Beall said.
“It’s a collaborative effort, and that’s really what the kids have learned out of this,” Beall said. “Science is collaboration. They learn that science is a cool thing.”
For the past several weeks, Oberst had been helping groups of students conduct experiments and prepare presentations for Cornell University’s Student Research Congress, which was held at the university March 22.
The liquid-nitrogen experiment was part of a project intended to show which chemical reactions would be most successful in quickly inflating an automobile’s air bag. With Oberst’s help, eighth-graders Ashley Granger, Rachel Hall, Devin Riegel and Mason Hawker tested liquid nitrogen, dry ice, baking soda and vinegar, and a combination of water, baking soda and calcium chloride.
Oberst also helped sixth-graders Erin Goodall and Tim Shaffer with a project about crickets. Tim said he hoped to find out whether environmental factors influence how often the crickets chirp. He created an environment for the crickets, complete with dirt and grass, and planned to change the temperature and lighting in the habitat.
“We’re going to do different things to the habitat and then count how many chirps,” Tim said.
Through the fellowship Oberst, who is in his third year of graduate work at Cornell, teaches at two middle schools and three high schools. Learning to work in these environments was a big shift for Oberst, who for the past several years has been surrounded solely by adults in the university setting.
“Through CSIP I’ve learned a great deal about teaching at the middle- and high-school levels. Perhaps the most significant thing I’ve learned is how better to communicate with students of those age groups, not only in teaching but also in normal social interactions,” Oberst said.
He said the students in his classrooms also seem to come from a broader range of backgrounds than the students he runs across at the university. Working with such a diverse group has been a “mind-opening experience,” Oberst said. His recent experiences at the schools have given Oberst a deeper appreciation for teachers and the challenges they face every day.
“I’ve learned a great deal about the classroom and school logistics, including everything from fitting one’s teaching material into a certain time allotment to tactics for holding students’ attention. I have come face to face with the stresses and pressures that middle- and high-school teachers face, and my respect for teachers and education professionals of all types has increased dramatically since my involvement with CSIP,” Oberst said.