Junior Science Cafe

Microbiology and Hygiene Lessons Meet at the Junior Science Café

By Donna Emert

COEUR D’ALENE, Idaho--- Microbiologist Rhena Cooper began her presentation to  Ramsey Elementary School fourth and fifth graders on Wednesday with a vocabulary word, and it was doozie: Ubiquitous.

“Ubiquitous means found everywhere,” she said. “Bacteria are found everywhere. They are ubiquitous.”

Ramsey learned that not only are bacteria almost freakishly ubiquitous, but an outrageously high number of them can fit in a very small space, she explained. Using 1000 grains of rice in sandwich baggie, and a ruler, Cooper illustrated that 1000 bacteria are cozy  in just  one millimeter of space. 

“You can’t even see them until their population reaches a million or more, and becomes a colony,” she said.

The kids gathered in the school library for Cooper’s  Junior Science Café presentation, supported by Northwest Association for Biomedical Research (NWABR) and by Idaho Network of Biomedical Research Excellence (INBRE). Cooper is Idaho INBRE Outreach Coordinator for University of Idaho and teaches microbiology at North Idaho College.

Ramsey Elementary Student Council members organized much of the program, creating announcements, making presentations to classmates, introducing the speaker, shooting photos, writing for the school paper and sending out thank you notes. 

As Cooper spoke, teachers held out closed Petri dishes with staphylococcus, E. Coli, streptococcus and other bacterial colonies for kids to examine up close--keeping it safe, scientific, and just  gross enough to pique everybody’s interest.

So many kids from the science magnet school were interested in attending the Science Café that a lottery system was used to select the audience. They listened attentively, asked good questions and learned quickly.

“Streptococcus loves sugar, so it lives in your mouth,” said Cooper. “How do you keep it from growing in there?”

“Brush and floss!” the crowd called out.

“Staphylococcus like salt, so they live on your skin,” said Cooper.   “How do you keep it under control?”

“Wash your hands!” the kids answered in unison. “Take a bath,” some voices added.

“Ecoli lives in your colon so what do you have to do after you go to the bathroom?” asked Cooper.

“Wash your hands!” said the kids.

“Yes! Always wipe, then wash your hands,” said Cooper.

“TMI!” said a boy in the crowd.