DANVILLE — South View Middle School student Faith Morgan thought she had a soft spot for all living things small and furry. That is, until she met Cecil.
Never one to shy away from petting a puppy, kitten or baby farm animal, the eighth-grader shrieked and hid behind a friend when University of Illinois graduate student Sarah Giers invited her to pet Cecil, a tarantula.
"Disgusting!" Faith said under her breath, as she watched the black-and-brown arachnid crawl out of the palm of Giers' hand and up her arm.
Despite her aversion to Cecil and the 4-inch-long millipede, Madagascar hissing cockroaches and blue death feigning beetles that accompanied the tarantula to the Danville middle school, Faith gave the event that featured the bugs and more than a dozen other interactive science activities an "A."
"It's fun. We get to see a lot of stuff we don't usually get to see," she said.
The event for middle school students and their families, called Science Night, was put on Monday evening by graduate students from the UI's School of Integrative Biology. It involved more than 40 students from a number of disciplines including animal biology; plant biology; entomology; physiological and molecular plant biology; and ecology, evolution and conservation biology; as well as physics and engineering.
The UI students put on a similar outreach program at Frank Hall Elementary School in Aurora last year. Following its success, they decided this year to partner with South View — a high-poverty school that's a little closer to home — and make it an annual event.
"Not every student can travel to Chicago to visit the Museum of Science and Industry. So we figured, why not bring the museum and all it has to offer to them?" said Julia Ossler, a plant biology student who won a $750 grant through the UI Chancellor's Public Engagement Student Fellows program to put on the event.
South View's Science Night drew more than 150 people — a good turnout for an evening activity, Principal Sharon Phillips said. She welcomed the event, which she said exposes students to the wide range of disciplines and practical applications and career options.
For 2 hours, students moved from classroom to classroom participating in activities called "Survivor: Antarctic Edition," demonstrating how animals adapt to cold weather; "What Personality Type Is Your Fish," showing different fish behaviors; and "CSI Danville: Fruit Forensics," requiring students to extract DNA from different fruits. They also got to make a souvenir necklace out of their DNA vial.
At another activity, called "May the force be with you," Joshua Schiller and Spencer Bryngelson, both mechanical science and engineering students, explained Bernoulli's Principle, then demonstrated the physics lesson with a fun experiment.
"You did it," Northeast Elementary School student Tinley Shanks told her sister, Trinity, when she was able to levitate a pingpong ball by blowing through a straw attached to the top of a plastic water bottle.
Down the hall, in an activity called "Bee Detectives: Crack the Code," a group of students learned about honeybees and how they communicate a food-source location to their nest mates through dance. Then they tried to use that knowledge to locate a particular flower patch on a Danville map, using their school as the bee's hive.
"I myself come from a very small, rural school," said John Maddux, an entomology student from Stoutland, Mo., who oversaw the activity along with Adam Hamilton, a neuroscience student, and Beryl Jones, an ecology, evolutionary and conservation biology student. "We didn't necessarily have a lot of resources to learn science. So I really enjoy bolstering the students' interest in science and scientific experimentation here past what their resources would normally allow."
Next door, eighth-grader Kris Dixon marveled at a series of embryos in jars showing the different growth stages of the American alligator. It was part of "The Leg Bones Connected to the Tail Bone?" activity put on by Catherine Hughes and Daniel Urban.
The grad students explained their work at the UI's Sears Lab with the evolutionary development of the reptile, the gray short-tailed opossum, the short-tailed fruit bat and the house mouse.
"I love science. It's my favorite subject," said Kris, who wasn't grossed out by the scaly reptile embryos floating in formaldehyde. "You get to do things with your hands and figure stuff out."
"You should come to the UI," Hughes said. "We have great science programs and we need good people in the field."
Later, Hughes said she enjoys youth outreach, which she also does through the Sears Lab. She wants to teach biology at the high school or community-college level.
"We want to inspire the next generation of scientists," she said. "It's really important to get students interested in science and show them college is an option at a young age. We want to get them to start thinking about why and how. Once that starts, it never stops."