Bishop Middle builds community through exploration 

University of Florida PhD student Courtney Sever, in orange, bursts out laughing after a combination of hydrogen peroxide, yeast, dishwashing soap and food coloring unexpectedly squirts out of a crack in a plastic skull and onto her shirt. The foamy concoction is colloquially known as “elephant toothpaste,” and its use demonstrates the effects of a catalyst.
Photo by Megan V. Winslow

For two hours Thursday, robots, slime, smoke and bubbles replaced the humdrum of homework for Howard Bishop Middle School students.  

Accompanied by their parents and siblings, sixth through eighth graders from the Gainesville school attended an after-hours event geared toward celebrating the five disciplines guiding modern education: science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics (STEAM).  

“This is all about building community: kids running around with their friends, seeing their teachers in a different way — that school can be such a joy,” said Chloe Winant, a sixth-grade science teacher at the school and an organizer of the annual event. 

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Winant launched Howard Bishop’s first STEAM Night in 2015. At the time, she had been contemplating ways for her students to interact with subjects as part of their science fair projects. 

“It was a way for my students to collect their human data in a really fun, carnival way,” Winant said. “So we invited all these other members from the science community.” 

This year, Howard Bishop robotics students showcased their coding prowess through friendly robotic competitions waged against peers. Their remote-controlled vehicles earned points by relocating pucks to colored zones of enclosed “fields” set up in the center of the school. 

Andy Russ and his teammates scored 17 points with their vehicle, dubbed Phoenix. The sixth grader said he was disappointed when Phoenix stalled against a wall, but he shrugged off the setback as simply “bad luck.” 

“Afterwards, we tested it out, and it worked well,” he said. “We were pushing a little too far into the purple (zone), so it wasn’t working.” 

Inside the gymnasium, demonstrators included representatives from the University of Florida, Santa Fe College, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and Hands on Gainesville, a community of local scientists set on inspiring a new generation of inquisitive minds.  

Each organization set up a table or series of tables, and students and their family members wandered from station to station to marvel at experiments involving substances such as liquid nitrogen and dry ice. 

A crowd of students and their families gathered to observe and document perhaps the most memorable experiment of the day: the combination of hydrogen peroxide, yeast, dishwashing soap and colored dye within a series of scientific beakers.  

The overflowing, foamy result is colloquially referred to as “elephant toothpaste” due to its resemblance to a tube squished by a clumsy pachyderm.  

Parker Boeck, a University of Florida graduate student studying chemistry, poured the concoction into an oversized plastic skull dubbed “Fred.”  

As expected, turquoise-colored foam oozed from Fred’s eye sockets and nasal cavity. But it also spurted from a small hole in the back of the skull and struck Boeck’s classmate, Courtney Sever, in the chest and head. She burst out laughing. 

James H. Thorpe, a University of Florida alumnus and current postdoctoral research fellow at Southern Methodist University, led a demonstration involving ferrofluid, a liquid consisting of magnetic particles that form intriguing shapes when they encounter magnetic fields.  

This year marked Thorpe’s second volunteering at the Howard Bishop event.   

“You get a bunch of participation,” he said. “You see the same kids coming year after year. They’re all learning, they’re growing up through school, and there’s a lot of them that get very excited when you just give them the opportunity to get excited about something.” 

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Great article and photos!