Weird, Accessible Science

Dr. Graeme Wyllie brings both the science and the weird to the table, making science accessible for everyone.

Wyllie stands at his science table in the dim light of the camp room holding a lighter and a handful of little bubbles.

“Now this science should only ever be done by grown-ups. By old folk,” he says to the crowd, a group of campers with special needs.

“So are you all brave?” he says, his Scottish accent still thick after 23 years in America.

They cheer, “Yes!” and Wyllie brings the lighter to his hand, setting the bubbles on fire. He waves an arc of flame above his head as if wielding fire from his palm, then forms a fist, putting out the fire with a flourish.

Wyllie, an assistant professor of chemistry at Concordia College, worked with campers at TechnoCamp 2016. It is a weeklong program organized by North Dakota’s Anne Carlsen Center. About 25 campers who have various disabilities have access to the latest assistive technologies in a traditional camp setting.

Mark Coppin, director of the camp, says they chose science as a theme this year because it is a topic that campers typically didn’t have access to.

“We wanted to provide them the opportunity to become active participants, fully engaged, and to realize that science can be fun and exciting as well as accessible,” he says.

Wyllie coordinates the Concordia Science Academy, which brings the excitement of science to youth. But TechnoCamp was a new experience. He wasn’t sure how the students would react to his thick accent and sense of humor, and it was the longest continuous experience he’d ever done. It ended up going well, and he was able to have more personal interactions with the campers over the three-day timespan.

To adapt the science experiments, Wyllie focused a lot on color and the sense of touch.

One colorful project was the rocket tie-dye T-shirts using Alka-Seltzer tablets plus food coloring in film canisters. Another was making colored worms from two solutions. Campers also explored engineering with the egg drop and the unique feeling of cornstarch plus water.

In his outreach experiences, he purposely uses chemicals that can be found at the grocery store and hardware store, ones that kids are familiar with and that are not dangerous.

“If you spill everything, it doesn’t matter,” he says. “We’ll just clean it up and try again.”

It’s part of his campaign to fight science anxiety by taking the pressure off and making it fun.

Coppin says all of the Science Academy activities were engaging and hands-on, and presented in a way that everyone could understand, without dumbing it down.

“Dr. Wyllie has a gift in that he is able to blend the science and the application of science together in an engaging and understandable way,” he says.

For Wyllie, the best part was seeing the students get engaged in the science. Coppin says Wyllie helped the campers see that a love of science can be enjoyed by everyone and can be accessible for all students.

“Dr. Wyllie provided the campers the opportunity to experience science no matter what their ability was,” he says. “One of the things I say at all my workshops and presentations is ‘It’s more than accessibility: It’s accessing abilities.’ This was especially true at our camp as kids were able to have access to the wonders of science.”