Outreach Activities

Natural Product-Based Outreach Activities: Lighting the Fire of Curiosity

The science classes offered in most elementary and middle schools teach students the theories and laws of science. They present this field as a collection of facts and rules and all too often, don’t convey the creativity, experimentation and curiosity so fundamental to the scientific world. As a result, many students shy away from science at a young age. These early impressions have a major impact on the number of students that go on to earn a degree in science. In fact, eighth grade children (approximately age 13) that identified that they wanted to pursue a career in the sciences were considerably more likely to receive a science-related bachelors degree (1.9x in life science and 3.4x in physical sciences and engineering; Science 2006, 312, 1143-1144). Accordingly, it is critical that new programs are developed to promote the interest of students at a young age.

Natural products provide the ideal venue in which to ignite an interest in science in general and chemistry in particular as their functional diversity influences nearly every aspect of our lives. From the colors of flowers and the smell of citrus to the agents used as drugs, these compounds perform functions that students can recognize and relate to. Dr. Carlson has developed a program called Natural Products and Lighting the Fire of Curiosity to introduce students to natural products, focusing on compounds produced by plants to facilitate pollination and elicit allelopathic effects (organism produces compounds to deter or attack other organisms). Given the importance of the mindset of children at a young age, our efforts will focus attention on outreach to local elementary and middle school aged students.

Plants produce myriad compounds to facilitate interactions with the world around them, many of which are colored or pigmented. Anthocyanins, members of the flavonoid family of natural products, are responsible for the colors of many flowers, fruits and leaves yielding a range of colors from orange to blue. We have generated activities involving these colored pigments to introduce children to the visible roles that natural products play in the world around them. A collaborative relationship has been established with the Girls Scouts of Central Indiana to bring the wonders of chemistry to young people in Central and Southern Indiana. Our first activity has been shared with more than 50 kids at the Indiana University National Chemistry Week Celebrations in the fall of 2010 and 200 Brownies during their visit to IU in the fall of 2011!