Armed with microscopes, Play-Doh and the principles of hydrodynamics, more than 20 Kenyon student volunteers commandeered Hayes Hall in the name of scientific exploration for Saturday’s BLAST off with ATHENAS program. Participants from Knox County middle schools spent the day immersed in a water-themed science extravaganza, which combined art, engineering and mess-making to expose students to scientific concepts in memorable ways.
The primary goal of BLAST off with ATHENAS is to encourage creativity and collaboration among middle schoolers through biannual “Science Saturday” events. This spring’s program, “H2Whoa!” explored concepts related to the properties and movement of water.
In preparation for the event, student leaders Ellie Haljun ’23, Zach Baker ’24 and Zoe Malouf ’25 spent several months brainstorming thematically fitting activities, ordering supplies and testing the viability of their ideas. The trio tabled at the Brown Family Environmental Center Harvest Festival and appeared on local radio station WQIO to generate interest among Knox County families, ultimately attracting about three dozen participants.
To kick off last Saturday’s hydro-centered festivities, students flooded into a Hayes Hall classroom, where they met their fellow attendees and participated in icebreaker activities — one of which involved fishing for chunks of ice using strands of string and salt. Immediately after, they split into three smaller groups for breakout activities centered around glacier movement modeling, water filtration and the unique thermal properties of water.
In a session designed by Malouf, students dragged muddy ice cubes through neon piles of play-doh to model the process of glacier melting and its impact on landscapes. Immediately after, they sent multicolored piles of flubber flowing through PVC pipes and created blockages with sandpaper, clay figures and rocks to explore how environmental conditions and obstacles impact glacier movement.
Down the hall, another session used common household waste such as pet hair and dirt to model the labor-intensive process of creating clean drinking water. Students also had the opportunity to taste different dissolved substances in water to see how pH and salinity affects taste. In the third room, participants wielded a temperature gun to measure the heat absorption of substances like dirt, in addition to creating models of ocean currents with food dye and gummy animals.
Beyond giving attendees the chance to use lab facilities and briefly overrun Peirce Dining Hall, the BLAST off with ATHENAS program allows students to create messes and experiment in ways that are not feasible in a regular classroom environment. According to Malouf, when designing the programs, the leaders purposefully leave room for experimentation and deviation from the original activity. “It’s a place for the students to make a mess and go wrong with their experiments because none of them are getting graded. I love watching the participants ask questions that lead to silly modifications to our experiments, especially ones we hadn’t thought of,” she wrote in an email to the Collegian.
Ultimately, while the event primarily focused on piquing middle school students’ scientific curiosity, it also generated a novel byproduct: the opportunity for Kenyon students to revitalize their love for science by experimenting in a way that they would never do in a typical laboratory setting. For Haljun, this ability for college students to engage with science outside of their usual structured environment was the most memorable part of the experience. “My favorite part of the event is getting to see the volunteers playing with science in a way they don’t get to normally,” Haljun wrote in an email to the Collegian. “The majority of the volunteers were science majors at Kenyon who do research and are normally very focused on the learning aspect. When volunteering, they get to play.”