Toxicology in Everyday Life: Promoting Toxicology Outreach

By Maureen Gwinn, PhD, DABT

EPA scientist shares science.

EPA's Dr. Maureen Gwinn sharing science.

One of my favorite hobbies is introducing kids to science in fun and interactive ways. I remember the first time I ‘made’ DNA – and how that ‘ah ha!’ moment set me on my current career path.  I try to share that excitement and encourage kids of all ages to see science as a fun way to learn how things work.

The past few years, this ‘hobby’ has taken on a life of its own—between helping my goddaughter’s Girl Scout troop put together their annual ‘Science Day’ fundraiser, to teaching kids about chemical reactions as part of EPA outreach.

More recently, as the K-12 Subcommittee Chair for the Society of Toxicology (SOT), I have had the opportunity to introduce kids across the country to toxicology as something more than just the study of poisons.

Each year at the annual SOT meeting, the Subcommittee works to include K-12 outreach in our host city.  From large events at local museums, to inviting high school students to present their toxicology research, our goal is to engage students at a young age.

At the recent meeting in San Francisco, the Subcommittee and local chapter interacted with more than 370 future scientists and their parents to introduce toxicological and other scientific terms and principles through fun experiments (http://www.toxicology.org/ai/meet/am2012/edout.asp).

With the assistance of 45 volunteers, including 25 undergraduates from UC Berkeley, families were invited to three different themed rooms with continuous hands-on activities.   Main themes included ‘Risks At Home,’ which focused on Household Hazards Identification/Lookalike products;  ‘Things that Wiggle,’ focused on understanding “Dose makes the poison” through a hands-on experiment examining exposure of blackworms to ethanol.

Our ‘Earth Room’ focused on what pH changes might mean to the environment through a hands-on activity demonstrating that acids cause chalk to deteriorate.  Kids tested the pH of different household items, saw their impact on a simulated lake, and discussed what it means.  The activity helped kids understand that everyone can have an impact on what happens to our water sources.

A fourth room featured a theatrical performance designed to bring all of the main points from the experiments together, as well as opportunities to ‘meet the toxicologist’ to learn more about careers in toxicology.

This year, the SOT K-12 Subcommittee is focusing efforts on collecting outreach materials in order to update the SOT website to facilitate idea sharing and easy access to resources that can be used for K-12 outreach.  Anyone who has a similar hobby, please feel free to add a comment below to share ideas and lessons learned in K-12 outreach!

About the Author: Maureen Gwinn, PhD, DABT (Diplomate of the American Board of Toxicology) joined EPA’s Office of Research and Development in 2006. She has always been fascinated with anything related to science and enjoys solving puzzles.  Along with her outreach work, Maureen also makes jewelry in her spare time and travels home to Maine as often as possible.

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