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Aspen Science Center responding to STEM challenge

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CRMS BBQ on July 22

By Denise Barkhurst

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Sopris Sun Correspondent

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Dropping watermelons from ladders, making fountains out of soda bottles, and creating geometric structures from zometools are just a few of the activities kids experience when they enter the world of the Physics for Kids BBQs hosted by the Aspen Science Center. On July 22 at 5 p.m., the center makes its way to the Colorado Mountain School (CRMS) campus in Carbondale for its yearly evening of simple BBQ fare and hands-on science geared towards kids of all ages.

The brainchild of George Stranahan, Kevin Ward and Andrei Ruckenstein, the Aspen Science Center is now in its 10th year of interactive, cutting-edge and innovative community outreach, stretching its programs into preschools, senior centers, libraries and day camps. Existing as an “organization without walls,” its mission is to make STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) accessible and relevant for the general public. As stated on its website, it does this by “advancing the public understanding of science through lifelong discovery, exploration, and education.” In other words, it makes science fun.

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At its weekly summer BBQs, usually held on the Aspen Center for Physics campus, the center sets up science play stations for kids, then tops off the evening with a talk from visiting scientists geared towards the younger generations. At CRMS, the visiting scientists will be Elizabeth H. Simmons (dean of Lyman Briggs College and University Professor of Physics at the Michigan State University Department of Physics and Astronomy) and Sekhar Chivukula (professor of physics at Michigan State University). Their topic will be “building atoms.” In other words, what do all atoms of an element have in common? What makes isotopes of an element different from one another? Why do some atoms decay? How does this explain why the sun shines? As advertised in The Sopris Sun, “Participants will get to build model atoms from everyday materials … and then eat them!”

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It is not difficult to identify the need for augmented STEM education throughout the U.S., and reports written by everyone from the Commerce Department to the U.S. Navy, UNESCO and Harvard verify that the U.S. ranks 24th out of 35 developed nations for science and math education. The statistics hold true no matter the grade level tested.

Our future economic stability and advancements require an increase in STEM education; therefore, enticing kids into understanding science is crucial.

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According to these sources, STEM job growth is exponentially increasing; even in the recent recession, there were two jobs for every one person who had a STEM education. And, between 2010 and 2020, STEM job growth will increase 20 percent, with 1.2 million new jobs available. The research seems to pile on: STEM workers get an average of 26 percent higher wage; only 25 percent of high school graduates enter STEM studies in college, and 38 percent of those students will drop out of that major citing difficulty and unpreparedness; and only 23 percent of STEM workers are women, though women make up 48 percent of our current workforce.

Catching kids at a young age is the key to hooking their interest in science Harvard research proves that augmented experiential science outside of the traditional classroom not only increases the brain’s capacity for overall learning, it also promotes problem-solving skills. The Aspen Science Center acknowledges this by its tireless efforts. Recently, it hosted a “cool jobs” forum, where a NOAA meteorologist, a USGS seismologist, a tech start-up entrepreneur, and a theoretical physicist talked to kids about what makes their jobs so “cool.” In August, it will host the Stargazer and Ice Cream Social where astrophysicists, astronomers and professional storytellers will engage all ages as they gaze through giant telescopes and eat liquid nitrogen ice cream. Also in August, the center will present its Street Fair in Paepcke Park. Thirty booths and multiple science entertainers will spend the day engaging the public in activities that connect science to our everyday lives. Lego robots, oobleck, seismographs, lasers, and solar race cars will be a few of the demonstrations people can play with.

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The Aspen Science Center events are free, with donations encouraged at the door so that the center can maintain its outreach programs. For more info, go to

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Denise Barkhurst is a part-time staff member at the Aspen Science Center, and a Sopris Sun board member.

Published in The Sopris Sun on July 16, 2015.

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