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Saturdays Are for Science : Education: UCI program celebrates its 10th year of letting youngsters use their ‘natural curiosity’ on weekends to develop a lasting love of chemistry, biology and other subjects.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

This was no ordinary UC Irvine science class.

Frogs wiggled on projectors, a small alligator squirmed on a lab table and snakes were pulled out of bright green bags. Students oohed and aahed.

This gathering of students and specimens was Saturday’s for Science, a four-week UCI program for youngsters who sacrifice their day off from school to mingle with professors and to learn how to make molecule models out of marshmallows and toothpicks.

“We try to put the fun back into science,” said chemistry professor Mare Taagepera, who started the program. “The children ask questions and aren’t intimidated by what goes on here.”

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Indeed, the children were not shy. Like trained scientists, the children sat back, observed and rattled off questions.

“Why does the alligator feel cold?”

“Are we made out of molecules?”

“What’s water made out of?”

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They took part in the experiments and demonstrations, like petting a 2-foot-long snake, cuddling mice and building crystal towers out of sodium acetate.

Professors who normally instruct college students suddenly found themselves speaking to an auditorium filled with people whose sneakers often did not reach the floor.

“Kids have this natural curiosity, and they aren’t frightened off so easily,” chemistry professor George Miller said. “There’s sort of a magical aspect to science. Everything is in the unknown until you ask questions. The kids always ask why.”

For the past four Saturdays, Nicolas Velat, 9, has given up sunny mornings in exchange for a lecture hall. Instead of playing outdoors, he has raced classmates so he can sit in the first two rows to see all the experiments.

“I like the classes, because it makes you think,” said Nicolas, who wants to be a dentist. “It makes me want to learn more.”

Children were not the only ones absorbing the information. Parents, who accompany their children to the lectures, seemed equally awed. They leaned forward in their seats just as much as their children. After class, they too clustered around the professors.

“I think I’m learning just as much,” said Luis Velat, Nicolas’ father. “I don’t want to leave when the class is over.”

Taagepera said she started the program when she realized that students in her UCI chemistry classes were not excited by science.

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“I was getting frustrated at my own students,” she said. “I was asking myself, ‘Why do students lose interest in the sciences when they get older? What is it that makes them stop liking it?’ ”

The program is part of the UCI Summer Science Institute, now in its 10th year. On Saturday, the children helped celebrate the anniversary with frosting-topped cupcakes.


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