Reaching Out to Students: It’s All About Learning That You Can Do It

Friday, April 17 2009

April 16, 2009

Written by Donna Emert 

SPOKANE, Washington– Scott Wood is always willing to take his laboratory on the road in the interest of science, more specifically, in the interest of drawing students into the sciences.

Wood is an aqueous geochemist and dean of the University of Idaho College Of Science. He and a team of experts from the university’s Moscow and Coeur d’Alene campuses, and from the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, recently set up burets, long skinny glass beakers that allow for precise measurement, electronic sensors and other lab equipment, in the belly of the Spokane Convention Center.

The laboratory allowed students to work one-on-one with scientists, to perform manual titration and a variety of test-strip analyses of Spokane River water and local tap water.

The laboratory work was part of the 34th annual Northwest Indian Youth Conference hosted by the Coeur d’Alene Tribal Council. More than 1000 Native youth from the U.S. and Canada attended the conference earlier this month.

Students measured and analyzed hardness, pH and conductivity. The data they collected offers insights into the river’s water quality and what scientists actually do to monitor water quality.

“I think it’s important to show young people, and people of all ages, how stuff works,” said Tom Williams, a participating professor of geology in the College of Science. It’s one thing to watch a documentary on the Discovery Channel, but it’s another thing entirely to do the work. When they do the science themselves, students begin to see that they can do it. It’s work; it takes effort and concentration. But they can do it, and it’s all about learning that you can do it.”

Lake Quinault High School freshman Nathaniel Pluff of the Quinault Tribe attended multiple sessions of the workshop, tested and retested his results, rethought and tweaked his approach, as all successful scientists do. “I liked it,” said Pluff. “We’ll be doing this at school, and I wanted to be prepared for it.”

Participating scientists hope the laboratory experience will spark students’ long-term interest in a science education, and in the wide variety of careers that education opens for them.

“Hands-on experience is probably the single most important factor in getting young people interested in science,” said Wood. “Most children start out life with a great curiosity about the world around them and how things work. When kids hit school, if they only learn about science through traditional lecture and cut-and-dried laboratory exercises, many of them get turned off. This is why the College of Science participates in providing outreach opportunities for kids in the community to do hands-on experiments, and why we offer plenty of opportunity for real-life research to our science undergraduates.”

“The U.S. faces a shortage of young people going into math, science and technology fields. We need to change this to maintain our economic competitiveness in the world and our quality of life,” he added. “If during this event we encouraged just a couple of students to pursue study and careers in these fields, we consider that to be a huge success.”

Participating scientists included lead presenter Anne Kern, science curriculum and instruction faculty at University of Idaho Coeur d’Alene and former laboratory supervisor at the California Water Service Company; Larry Branen, nanotechnologies researcher in food science and toxicology and University of Idaho associate vice president for northern Idaho; David Newcombe, microbiologist and environmental science faculty at University of Idaho Coeur d’Alene, who also serves as assistant director of the Water Resources Research Institute; Tom Williams, University of Idaho professor of geology; Lori Wood, former faculty in nutrition at Washington Statue University; Bruce Kinkead, fisheries biologist with the Coeur d’Alene Tribe’s Natural Resources Department; and Carrie Holton, environmental specialist on hazardous waste management with the Tribe’s Lake Management Department.

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About the University of Idaho
Founded in 1889, the University of Idaho is the state’s flagship higher-education institution and its principal graduate education and research university, bringing insight and innovation to the state, the nation and the world. University researchers attract nearly $100 million in research grants and contracts each year; the University of Idaho is the only institution in the state to earn the prestigious Carnegie Foundation ranking for high research activity. The university’s student population includes first-generation college students and ethnically diverse scholars. Offering more than 150 degree options in 10 colleges, the university combines the strengths of a large university with the intimacy of small learning communities. For information, visit

Media Contact: Donna Emert, University Communications, (208) 640-1609, Photo available at

About the University of Idaho
The University of Idaho helps students to succeed and become leaders. Its land-grant mission furthers innovative scholarly and creative research to grow Idaho's economy and serve a statewide community. From its main campus in Moscow, Idaho, to 70 research and academic locations statewide, U-Idaho emphasizes real-world application as part of its student experience. U-Idaho combines the strength of a large university with the intimacy of small learning communities. It is home to the Vandals. For information, visit