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March 18, 2007

Deaf students learning science hands-on

From: The News Journal - Wilmington,DE,USA - Mar 18, 2007

Program also teaches prospective scientists communication skills
By ALISON KEPNER, The News Journal
Posted Sunday, March 18, 2007

PHILADELPHIA -- Quinton Ferrell, 11, dipped a Q-tip into a cup of flavored water then pressed the cotton against the side of his tongue.

The Delaware School for the Deaf fifth-grader's face puckered as he pulled it out, laughing.

Yeah, he could taste the sour.

He could taste sweet, salty and bitter, too.

University of Pennsylvania science students designed the experiment to teach elementary school children about taste. More than 150 third- to sixth-graders from four schools "judged" Penn students' hands-on activities during a morning-long science fair Friday.

The Penn KidsJudge! Fair is part of a national education program designed to make scientists better communicators and elementary school children better scientists.

At other stations, students from Delaware School for the Deaf, also called the Margaret S. Sterck School, learned about the brain. They donned latex gloves so they could see what real brains look and feel like.

Fifth-grader Tonjaraye Phares gently lifted a sheep brain from the table. The organ was a tenth of the size of a model human brain, but much larger than the mouse brain at the other end of the table. She compared it with real monkey, cow, cat and dog brains also on display.

"It's all hands-on, which is really important for our students," Delaware School for the Deaf science teacher Wendy Balakhani said. "With deaf students, the more visual the better."

The presentations also fit in well with what the students are learning in class. They just finished studying the brain, which likely is why Tonjaraye could identify the brain stem and other parts when asked by the university students.

Penn senior Craig Hertel's group designed the "Synaptic Land" game to teach the children how brain cells send messages back and forth. The university students explained that a brain cell is called a neuron; it has two extensions, the receiving dendrite and the sending axon. They are separated from adjoining dendrites or axons by a small space called the synapse.

The children then took turns being senders and receivers, using claws to push and grab plastic balls back and forth on a wooden table.

"We want to use all the actual terms with them, but we want to simplify it as much as we can," Hertel said.

A game, he said, makes it easier to remember, compared with just seeing the concept explained on a poster.

And it seemed to work. Later in the morning the children arrived at another station where they were asked if they knew the neuron's role. They did.

Quinton, though, said the tongue station remained his favorite.

"They all tasted good," he signed to his teacher.

Edwin Ortiz-Gonzalez, 12, gave that project his vote, too.

"It was fun to make the expressions for bitter and sour," he signed.

Contact Alison Kepner at 324-2965 or

© 2007, The News Journal.