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Bull City Summer

Experiencing the science of baseball

Posted July 29, 2013

— Weaving through the crowds at a Bulls game in June, I find that as I near the concessions, the number of tangerine T-shirts in view is rapidly rising. A quick glance at the cartoonish magnifying glass and “Summer Science Sleuths” printed across their fronts, and I can’t help but think that someone must have just lost a lot of kids.

It turns out Chris Adamczyk, program director of the Summer Science Sleuths camp and Executive Director of the Duke Center for Science Education, knew exactly what she was doing when she brought 60 curious young scientists to the Bulls game. Over coffee, she explains to me that a goal of the camp is to teach that science is a part of everyday life and not some sequestered study of things in test tubes — and that means making field trips.

“Our job is to make science so fun and so interesting that it becomes a career option for these kids,” says Adamczyk.

The Summer Science Sleuths camp is in its third year. Adamczyk says that the campers’ annual trip to the ballpark is a great equalizer, a time when the rising 8-10 graders all get together in a social setting. They then return the following day, armed with test tubes and magnifying glasses to discover the science at play during a typical ball game.

At this year’s field trip do DBAP, “We acquired samples of all the different types of soil and analyzed them for acidity and nutrients,” Adamczyk says. “The more senses you learn with, the more likely the fact is to go into long-term memory. So, sitting right out there on the mound with their test tube racks and soil testing materials — they will never forget that.”

In addition to soil testing, the sleuths discovered just how many ways Newton’s second law (force equals mass times acceleration) applies in the ballpark.

“Force and mass play a huge role in baseball — how fast the bat is moved, the force with which the ball is hit, if it’s enough force to go over the wall for a home run, and even the force at which you hose down the base path and the trajectory of the water. We explored it using water balloons. It’s hard to believe that you’re doing science when you’re dropping water balloons off a wall, but it allows them to visualize the relationship between force and mass, and apply it in all the other situations. It’s incredible how much physical science is involved in the game.”

Home base for the sleuths is Duke’s campus, but their search for science in everyday life has led them to the coast to study marine biology, a bean-to-bar chocolate factory, Jordan Lake, and the Duke Lemur Center Nature Resource Center, to name a few places. For the most part, however, Adamczyk brings the science to them.

“We have a lot of guests come in," she explained. "A master ice cream maker teaches them about the chemistry and physics in making ice cream. Local musicians come in on the day they learn about sound and rhythm, and they teach them how to make their own musical instruments out of junk. We have a major from the National Guard come in to do a presentation on night vision goggles on the day they study sight. We work with the state crime lab in developing a unit on forensics. The list goes on and on.”

The program accepts applications from students from every corner of the US who have shown some interest in science in their schooling thus far.

“They apply and enter the program as eighth graders, all with a full scholarship because of a generous grant from The Hartwell Foundation. These kids aren’t necessarily at the top of their class, but we look for kids that are curious and bright.”

Before coming to Duke, Adamczyk worked as a research scientist for global healthcare company GlaxoSmithKline. She found her way to science education in the 1990s, once she had her own children.

“I saw the opportunity to work with their day care providers and teachers, and it blossomed from there. I found that having a foot in two places, the world of science and the world of education, was a unique place to be — it was sort of like being bilingual… Interacting in the world of educating allows me to bring a piece of my scientist side and translate what I do so that people can understand science in the real world."

So why choose baseball as a tool to make science accessible?

“The way we use it, the ballpark is a huge symbol of the idea that science is everywhere in life,” Adamczyk says. “It’s an important place where kids can connect with real science and feel comfortable with it. I’m also a long-suffering Red Sox fan — my parents were engaged in Fenway Park. It’s just in our DNA.”

And there’s something about the sound of the stadium, she says.

“If you have your eyes closed and you’re flipping TV channels and you get to that channel when there’s a pause of the announcer — that sound, it’s so characteristic.”

It seems for Adamczyk, it’s not about a scientist in the laboratory and the writer at the library, and never the twain shall meet. It’s about the intersections — where mound meets clay and fingertip meets home plate.

“I think that’s part of the beauty of this camp. It shows the kids that there are intersections in life,” Adamczyk says. “It’s not the social life over there and family life over here and school right there. It’s when you find those connections between it all when it all makes sense.”

We hug and part ways, knowing that we will likely intersect again soon. But for now, like the Sleuths, I leave with a great appreciation and understanding of science, baseball, and — for a Tarheel like me — maybe even Duke.

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