Ask a Scientist

Department of Microbiology

Exploding lunch bags, homemade lava lamps, and a clock charging off orange juice are just a few ways graduate students in the UT Department of Microbiology spark the curiosity of students from rural and urban communities visiting the Knoxville Zoo. In 2017, the UT chapter of Ask a Scientist began collaboration with the Knoxville Zoo to host a number of outreach events.

“Our objective for these outreach opportunities is to foster curiosity and the joy of learning about science topics to people who may have heard science topics in the news, or elsewhere, but had little information,” said Karissa Cross, Ask a Scientist vice-president and PhD candidate in the microbiology department. “We also wanted people from these communities to be able to talk with scientists from diverse fields of study.”

The first event at Knoxville Zoo was part of a Girl Scouts program. The young girls spent the day learning about different aspects of the zoo and native species of Tennessee. Volunteers spoke to more than 100 Girl Scouts about native bee populations and the importance of bees for plant and agriculture health.

“We introduced the girls to ethology – the study of animal behavior – and had them participate in a game designed after the bee waggle dance in which they had to communicate with each other without using words,” Cross said. “In the end, the girls learned about ways to help native bee populations and showcased their knowledge with a fun game.”

During Hogwart’s Adventure Day, an annual Harry Potter-themed event at the Zoo, members of Ask a Scientist hosted a Potions Class with interactive activities for kids. Science experiments included a yeast reaction that produced elephant toothpaste, baking soda rockets, and dry ice geysers.

Boo! at the Zoo

Their biggest outreach took place during the weeklong Boo! at the Zoo event. Each day, UT students conducted experiments that taught kids about gas and atmosphere science, acid-base and polymer chemistry, and intermolecular polarity.

“At first glance these topics may seem intimidating, but we presented them in a way that engaged and encouraged everyone to be involved,” Cross said. “Our collaboration with the Knoxville Zoo over the past two years has far exceeded our expectations. We’ve received positive feedback and comments from parents who said we encouraged their children to want to be involved in science.”

Through the collaboration, several UT microbiology students had the opportunity to gain experience interacting with the public about various fields of science.

Kids U in the Department of Microbiology is another outreach opportunity for graduate students. During the summer camp program, students in grades third through twelfth learn from college faculty, staff, and graduate students about science. It is part of a larger outreach effort at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

UT is one of the few institutions with an entire department dedicated to microbiology. Faculty and graduate students have a variety of technologies available to facilitate learning through hands-on techniques, which kids enjoy.

“One of the most impactful things of Kids U is the general eagerness of the students to learn,” said Jonelle Basso, microbiology PhD candidate and instructor of Kids U camps in the department. “They start to relate microbiology to everyday life and share what they learn with their family and friends. It sparks interest in the ‘unseen world’ of microbes and how they impact everyone.”