Kid Stuff

Ask a Scientist for Kids

new science series for inquisitive kids

Emily Thierfelder |

From energy policy and the environment to health care and economic competitiveness, science research and its products were critical to many political issues in the election, and one UW-Eau Claire astronomy professor wants to make sure Chippewa Valley residents of all ages continue to stay informed on scientific developments – even residents who won’t be able to vote for a decade or more.

A firm believer that scientifically educated citizens feel they have a stake in the government’s decisions more than non-educated ones, and are therefore more willing to stay informed throughout their lives, Dr. Paul Thomas and two other professors hosted “Ask a Scientist for Kids” at the Eau Claire Children’s Museum on Saturday, January 24. The two-hour session featured hands-on science demonstrations for 5- to 10-year-olds.

“One of the best things that you can do as a scientist is to work with the population in general to help them understand why what you do is important, and that’s what I’m trying to do here,” said Thomas. “If you can give kids the idea that the universe is understandable and there is scope for them to think about a world that contains a lot of science, you’ll have started them on a life of great possibility.”

The “Ask a Scientist for Kids” session is part of the current “Ask a Scientist” series, through which various scientific experts host informal monthly discussions at Eau Claire’s Acoustic Café. The sessions are based on the popular “Café Scientifique” network, which originated in the United Kingdom in the late 90s and slowly spread into the United States. The idea is to provide a place for people of all backgrounds and education levels to discuss important and interesting scientific issues in an informal, accessible forum. Thomas attended a session in Duluth last year and was inspired to begin a series here.

The 2008-2009 “Ask a Scientist” season began with a presentation by UW-Eau Claire geography professor Harry Jol on biblical archeology in September; a few minutes into the session, there was barely enough room in the coffee shop to stand. A few more well-attended sessions convinced Thomas that the series would indeed be a success, and he began organizing a children’s presentation.

    “We want to tell them, ‘Hey, there really are people out there who study biology and geology or the world, and it’s OK to want to do that,’” said Thomas. “Furthermore, those people who study science are not just strangers on TV; they’re someone you can see – someone who lives in your town.”

Part of January’s session featured a presentation by UW-Eau Claire physics professor Dr. Erik Hendrickson, who has spent the past 20 years giving science presentations to kids in schools throughout Wisconsin.

“Science is just so important, and I think that after a while, kids get to the point where they think it’s too hard or scary,” said Hendrickson. “If we can show kids that science is cool and not something they could never do in the real world, that’s pretty neat.” 

To show the effects of pressure, for instance, Hendrickson stepped on a single nail with his shoe, then stepped on an entire bed of nails at once. In the first instance, the nail could have gone through his foot, but in the second instance, he was able to stand on them – thereby demonstrating the effects of area combined with force.

“They remember this stuff because it’s out of the ordinary,” said Hendrickson. “After doing these experiments, kids always say that it’s magic, but I tell them that it’s science. That’s what scientists do – we try to solve things that seem like magic.”

The current “Ask a Scientist” series ends in April, and Thomas is looking forward to planning new discussion topics for next year.

“We won’t shy away from topics that are controversial. We want to talk about things that hold people’s interest,” said Thomas. “‘Ask a Scientist’ and ‘Ask a Scientist for Kids’ is a way of saying that science is important and it’s something that you could do at any level. It’s a way of looking at the world.”

    Ask a Scientist • Fourth Tuesday of every month • 7pm • Acoustic Café, Eau Claire • FREE • (715) 832-9090 •

Main image credit (page 1): martincron