URBANA — Students at Yankee Ridge Elementary in Urbana learned a lot about science Thursday, and they seemed pretty thrilled about it.
Down the halls, you could hear students exclaiming as local scientists taught them all sorts of interesting things.
Students learned about owls and other birds from the University of Illinois Wildlife Medical Center, an explanation of how engineering determines how Segways work and how an archaeologist from the Illinois State Archaeological Survey can determine if a piece of stone discovered in the field was once used as a hoe or an ax.
It was the 10th annual Junior Scientist Day and the last for its current organizers, said Kristin Hedman, who plans it every year with her husband, Peter Heinricher. She works at the state archaeological survey, and he does environmental compliance for the Army Corps of Engineers.
Their youngest son, Lukas Heinricher, is a fifth-grader at Yankee Ridge, which means he's moving on to middle school next year. She said other parents have expressed interest in organizing the event next year.
This year's activities show that Hedman and Heinricher have planning Junior Scientist Day, if you'll forgive the pun, down to a science.
They started it because they wanted to put together some sort of science fair when their daughter was at Yankee Ridge.
"What we like about it is, there's so much attention paid to literacy and math, and it often seems like science gets less attention," Hedman said. "I don't think that kids generally think, 'Oh, science is so fun,'" she said. "But when they can see all the different things that science is, all the potential activities that it includes ... it becomes something they think they can do themselves."
Hedman said she pays attention to scientific activities throughout the community, like the UI Engineering Open House or vet med open house, and begins asking people to participate after winter break.
Many who participate are volunteers, she said.
"To take that time ... and give an entire day to our kids, it's really generous," Hedman said.
The UI's Physics Van came (it does every other year, Heinricher said) and wowed students by exploding soapy water with liquid nitrogen, complete with an explanation of how liquids take up less room than gases and why cold air takes up less room than warm air.
Students also talked with many other scientists, including those from Anita Purves Nature Center, Illinois Natural History Survey, the Society of Women in Engineering, the Structural Engineers Association and the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition.
In the after-school room, third-graders wielding plastic spoons got the chance to cut planarians, or flatworms, with help from staff from the Newmark Lab for Planarian Regeneration.
Kayla Stubbs looked like she was enjoying the process, beginning with sucking two planarians into a pipette to put into her own petri dish.
Other classmates expressed concern about cutting the tiny worms in half, but Stubbs said she didn't mind much. The trick, she said was to wait for the worm to unfurl and stretch itself out in the middle of her dish.
"It takes a week for the head to grow back," Stubbs said.
Hedman said the school's staff and teachers basically give the school over during Junior Scientist Day and its accompanying clamor, and for an important cause.
"Our motto has always been is that science is fun and that the kids can do it," Hedman said.