UO chemistry faculty members win Dreyfus Grant for Furlough Friday Science Days

Three faculty members in the UO chemistry department have been awarded a grant for $25,785 from the Camille and Henry Dreyfus Special Grant Program in the Chemical Sciences for their work on a science education outreach program for middle school and high school students. The Furlough Friday Science Days program brings Springfield students into the laboratory for hands-on learning opportunities on no-school days.

“This award assures that the program will be sustainable,” said Michael Pluth, an assistant professor of chemistry who helped launch the program. “This program is about increasing the appreciation for science and showing kids that they can do this if they want. It’s about showing them that science can be challenging, but it is within their reach.”

The award is handed out annually by the Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation to recognize projects that advance the chemical sciences at all levels. Pluth and fellow UO chemistry faculty members, Shannon Boettcher and George Nazin, began Furlough Fridays to combat the problem of reduced middle school science education due to budget cuts. Now in its second year, the program has been focused primarily on Springfield’s Hamlin Middle School. Seventh and eighth graders from the school travel to the UO on no-school days by bus for hands-on science labs, lunch, mentoring and tours of UO science facilities. Springfield High School science students provide mentoring and conduct their own advanced chemistry experiments in UO labs.

“I think getting people excited about science at a young age is important,” Pluth said. “The program also serves to increase people’s basic understanding of science — how it’s done, what it means and the fact that what we understand about the world is the product of hundreds of years of scientific exploration.”

Last year featured 10 Furlough Friday sessions with a total of 142 visits by 50 middle school students, 15 high school student mentors and 24 high school AP chemistry students. Some of the topics that were covered included solar energy, the chemistry of color and acid-base chemistry.  UO graduate students have been actively involved in the sessions and the program has provided them with opportunities to sharpen their teaching skills, Pluth says.

Now that the program has been funded with a grant, one goal will be to expand Furlough Fridays to other schools. Organizers hope to increase enrollment each year, in the hopes of reaching a cumulative goal of 375 students in three years — a total of 4,000 additional hours of science education for local students.

“This invaluable program has brought research, education and community service together, and we are proud of the chemistry faculty members who took the initiative to create learning opportunities for local students who have lost classroom time to budget cuts,” said Kimberly Andrews Espy, vice president for research and innovation and dean of the graduate school. “The program will have a lasting impact on the scientists of tomorrow and this grant will allow even more students to take advantage of Furlough Fridays.”

Last year’s Furlough Friday program culminated in a celebration that drew 80 students and parents. In written evaluations of the sessions, more than 80 percent of the students said the program made them “feel like a real scientist.”