1 December 2009

Magnet science? It's elementary

Carlos R. Villa gets kids excited about science.

By Amy Mast, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

The Magnet Lab, at 370,000 square feet, is a pretty big place. But the lab's Center for Integrating Research and Learning (CIRL) reaches miles and miles beyond the lab's front door. The CIRL team goes to classrooms all over the region – from South Florida to South Georgia – demonstrating science concepts and more importantly, teaching kids to investigate the world around them.

A student team makes a compass.A student team makes a compass.K-12 Education Outreach Coordinator Carlos R. Villa walks into a classroom and plunks down a large toolbox full of … who knows? He's not telling yet. Several of the students make unnecessary trips past the box to wash their hands or sharpen pencils, trying to get a peek inside

Today he's visiting fifth-graders at W.T. Moore, a Tallahassee elementary school. He starts off by asking if any of the students know anything about sea turtles. Lots of hands go up.

"They have shells."

"They walk slow."

"They go back to the beach where they were born and lay their eggs."

Villa picks up on this point. "How can the turtles swim all over the world and know how to get back home? Do they have maps?"

One child answers, "Magnetic fields!"

"Absolutely," says Villa. "We have found that some animals can detect the Earth's magnetic field and navigate with it."

Villa goes on to talk about the various creatures – pigeons, hammerhead sharks, even dairy cows – that have a migratory (or in the case of cows, still unexplained) relationship to the Earth's magnetic field. Then he offers the classroom a chance to make its own navigation device: a homemade compass.

Education Outreach Coordinator Carlos R. Villa explains how a compass works.Education Outreach Coordinator Carlos R. Villa explains how a compass works.One expects to see step-by-step worksheets handed out across the room, but no such shuffle of paper ensues. "Here's the thing," Villa explains. "We've talked a little bit about magnets, and we've talked a little bit about how a compass works. You've got clues, and you have all these materials, but I'm not going to tell you how to make it. You can make a very simple compass or a very complicated one; there is more than one right answer."

A chorus of response bursts from the students, some up for the challenge, some rolling their eyes. Each team of students has in front of them a couple of plastic discs, a needle, some of those tiny straws you'd use to stir coffee, a couple of paper clips, a bar magnet, and a petri dish filled with water. Hmm.

More than a dozen miniature experiments erupt at once, paper clips mangled and balancing precariously, bar magnets plunked into dishes, needles slid inside straws. Water is spilled and drips off desks. Even the eye-rollers start to get involved in this crazy assignment that doesn't have directions.

Gradually, the teams figure it out. The bar magnet is too heavy to point toward north, and it can't float in the water. The teams move on to the paper clips, then the needles, and a-ha! A needle on a floating disc will face toward North! So will a needle floating inside one of the tiny straws!

The children with the successful experiment attract their own share of very casual passers-by, who then go back to their desks and replicate the "winning" design. But even then, tinkering takes over – will the newly created compass work with this variation? How about with this one?

Teacher materials reinforce lessons

All told, CIRL staff reaches more than 8,000 students a year with both outreach and in-house programs designed to get young kids thinking scientifically and to introduce older children to science as a career option. To ensure the lesson sticks, teachers are offered pre- and post-lesson materials aimed at placing the demonstrations squarely in the context of the students' larger science curriculum.


  • High School Internship: Supervised by scientists, exceptional high school students conduct their own in-depth research at the Magnet Lab.
  • Middle School Mentorship Program: A partnership with the Leon County Schools.
  • SciGirls Summer Camp: A two-week, hands-on camp run by the MagLab and WFSU that inspires girls to pursue careers in science.

For students visiting the lab, the demonstrations are combined with a tour, but for classroom visits, teachers can choose from about 20 different demonstrations, ensuring that even the youngest grade-schoolers can experience science in a hands-on way.

Candi Kalfas has been using CIRL demonstrations as part of her classroom's science experience for years. "It is unbelievable to see the kids' reaction. The next day, I asked them what they thought of science period the day before and the whole class lit up and all started talking at once. I think that hands-on activities are priceless! Carlos does such a wonderful job of getting the students excited and making the lesson relevant to what they are learning in the classroom," she said.

All of CIRL's programs are developed in close collaboration with research scientists and educators. Housed at the Magnet Lab, the Center is uniquely positioned to take advantage of the excellent resources, connections, world-class facilities and cutting-edge science the lab has to offer. CIRL is supported by the National Science Foundation and the State of Florida, and also applies for and receives several project-directed grants.

It's time for the next class, and with a flurry of books and snacks a new group of students shuffles in. Villa starts all over again, in a totally different way. On some days he'll do the same demonstration five different times or visit several different schools, and he often goes back to the same classrooms several times a year, bringing a new demonstration each time. And with each demonstration, students learn that science is more about learning how to ask the right questions than getting the right answer.