Market science

Banner, from left to right: College of Biological Sciences grad students Derek Nedveck, Mohamed Yakub, Beth Fallon and John Benning; Minnesota Zoo conservation biologist Erik Runquis; CBS postdoctoral student Ryan Briscoe-Runquist and Jack!

It’s a Saturday morning at the Midtown Farmers Market. Arranged across tables, in crates and under awnings are this season’s colorful bounty of tomatoes and green beans, sunflowers and . . . scientists? Wearing purple shirts imprinted with the slogan, “I’m a scientist … ask me what I do,” several University of Minnesota graduate students are at the market to engage kids and their parents in science experiments and activities aimed at bridging the divide between science and the public. To accomplish this task, the team is facilitating hands-on activities to get market goers talking about gardens and the natural processes that sustain them.

The students were concerned by a study that showed that Minnesota’s racial minorities and women are falling behind in math and science and chose the Midtown market at Lake Street East and 22nd Avenue South in Minneapolis for its diverse ethnic population. They wanted to bring science down from the proverbial ivory tower and make it available to the public. Five Market Science days were planned on alternating Saturdays, each with a different theme, with activities and experiments based on the theme. To fund supplies for the activities, they applied for and won a Mini Grant from the Institute on the Environment.

“We wanted to establish a consistent presence so people feel comfortable approaching us,” says Mohamed Yakub, a College of Biological Sciences Ph.D. candidate and project co-lead. “We wanted to have more intimate conversations.”

Other project co-leaders are Alyson Center, CBS Ph.D. student and a St. Olaf College faculty member; and Jessica Biever, a postdoctoral associate in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences.

Children with pipe cleaners made different pollinators that would then be used in a pollinating the flowers game.  Straws in cups helped explain how trees bring water from roots to leaves. Photo by Mo Yakub.
Children made different pollinators with pipe cleaners that would then be used in a pollinating the flowers game. Straws in cups helped explain how trees bring water from roots to leaves. Photo by Mo Yakub.

The students see the project as an avenue to recruit the next generation of scientists by making scientific research more relevant, explained Center. They hope their “science discovery stations” at the market will establish direct avenues for conversations between university researchers and the general public, she said.

“Sustainability in the backyard” was the theme of the first Market Science day in June, when IonE resident fellow and CBS professor Sarah Hobbie presented different soil samples from around the area and gave tips on which soil types were best suited for what types of plants.

“GMOs and DNA” was the topic on one Saturday in July. The team elicited comments about GMOs —  genetically modified organisms — via a white board on which people could leave anonymous comments; they learned that visitors,  at least on that day, generally have negative attitudes about GMOs and are not much interested in discussing or learning more about them.

On “pollinators and plants” day, people matched pictures of pollinators with the plants they pollinate and crafted bees and other insects from pipe cleaners to be used in a pollinating game. In another activity, kids sucked water through a varying number of straws to understand how a 30-foot tree can pull water from its root to its leaves.

The final Market Science day will be held this Saturday, Sept. 6. The theme will be “plants post-harvest.” How fruits ripen, storage life and the origins of the U of M’s beloved honey crisp apple will be among the topics of the day.

Banner from left to right: College of Biological Sciences graduate students Derek Nedveck, Mohamed  “Mo” Yakub, Beth Fallon and John Benning; Minnesota Zoo conservation biologist Erik Runquist; CBS postdoctoral student Ryan Briscoe-Runquist and son Jack. Photo courtesy of Mo Yakub.