Students Catch the Bio Buzz

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They swarmed the Georgia Institute of Technology bio-community, hundreds of them, dipping their eager hands into science. Among other things, they made silly putty, they touched eyeballs, hearts and snakes, toured research laboratories, and were instructed in stem cells and biomaterials by real experts. And finally, they dropped eggs from high places without breaking them.

The Petit Institute for Bioengineering and Bioscience facilitated all of this on Saturday, Oct. 10, for the Buzz on Biotechnology, an annual open house for high school students and their families.

“This has evolved into one of Georgia Tech’s most effective outreach programs,” said Loren Williams, professor in the School of Chemistry and Biochemistry and a longtime faculty member of the Petit Institute. “It brings in top Georgia high school students with their parents, siblings, peers and teachers and introduces them to our students, facilities and research programs. It presents the best of Tech to the outside world.”

Organized and presented by the Bioengineering and Bioscience Unified Graduate Students (BBUGS), this year’s Buzz featured 18 different demonstrations, 24 tours of six separate Petit Institute research labs, and four back-to-back seminars for 350 students, parents and teachers from 36 schools and 20 home school groups.

Some parents, especially from the home school crowd, brought younger students, the idea being that it’s never too early to start thinking about college.

“This is an amazing event, great for any age student who is interested in science,” said Tasha Wolford, who brought her 10-year-old home-schooled son, Austin, who stood nearby, enthusiastically nodding his ascent. “The hands-on stuff, that’s what gets kids really excited about the science. And to have the college students, to be able to talk with them and see how excited they are about what they’re doing, that was really valuable.”

The BBUGS were stationed at tables throughout the Petit Institute atrium, the Suddath Room and outside in the quad. They demonstrated some basic science principles with fun, hands-on presentations, including:

• Viscoelasticity: In this demo, attendee students learned how to make silly putty out of common household chemicals, and learned how this famous toy’s chemical properties are used in science and the body.

• Genes by All Means: DNA is the template of life, but it can also be extracted from food using everyday household products. 

• Egg Drop: This exercise teaches about the important design criteria for protective helmets. So, high school (and younger) students use this knowledge to design a “helmet” for a raw egg. The eggs are then dropped them from the second and third-floor balconies.

• Liquid Nitrogen: What happens when you flash freeze a flower, or a tortilla, or fresh produce? What is dry ice and why does it steam? How does liquid nitrogen stay a liquid? In the one demonstration table operated by faculty, Loren Williams answered these questions and made some fans.

“We met a crazy professor outside, and he’s one big reason to come to Georgia Tech, just to take his classes,” Tasha Wolford said after seeing Williams’ presentation. 

“I totally agree,” said her son, Austin, again nodding his head vigorously.

“The response from the attending kids is so positive,” said Williams who, like the BBUGS who plan and carry out the event, is a fixture at the Buzz on Biotechnology each year. “I personally have a blast entertaining them with science tricks and stunts because they are so responsive. Buzz on Biotechnology really works for Tech and for the visitors. Our students have to be congratulated for this.”

If there were student workhorses for the event, they were Kyle Blum, Jenn Pentz and Marissa Ruehle, from the BBUGS education and outreach committee, who pulled together all of the volunteers, solidified final details for the demos, lab tours and seminars, and sent more messages than an army of carrier pigeons. 

Then they brought all of the disparate pieces together on Saturday for an event that seemed to flow easily.

“My primary measure of success was that all the lab tours and demos went smoothly, without any day-of crises, and that I saw a lot of smiling faces, both from participants and volunteers,” said Ruehle. 

The day of the event was a low-stress affair, said Blum, because of the advance planning by the BBUGS and Petit Institute staffers.

“It’s especially fun and challenging to come up with ways to teach complicated scientific concepts in a visually-intuitive way,” Blums said. “Buzz on Biotech is always an important event for me, because it’s our biggest chance to make a serious impact on the lives of high school students.” 

The makeup of the visitors was as diverse as the demonstrations, people from communities surrounding and within Metro Atlanta, all of them with one thing in common: an interest in science.

“Science is a great field, because it is everywhere, and everyday concept,” said Renula Rajasekaran. She teaches advanced placement chemistry at Luella High School near Locust Grove, and brought 10 students and their families.

“Something like this gives our students more exposure than they can get in the classroom, which is extremely valuable as they think about their futures,” said Rajasekaran.

In addition to the exposure to science and experimentation, the Buzz on Biotechnology also served as a kind of unofficial recruiting tool for Georgia Tech. A representative from Georgia Tech Admissions was on hand to answer any questions about applications or student life. But the best feedback in this regard was unsolicited and unexpected.

A 16-year-old student, one of the 350 visitors on Saturday, made a point of stopping to talk with Ruehle and her colleagues that as a result of the event, she was now planning to pursue an engineering degree.

“She had been interested in becoming a doctor,” Ruehle said. “But after learning that engineers are involved with health applications at Buzz, she felt more interested in engineering and science than in medical school.”

The young student also said that meeting so many “normal girls” at the event was very important to her, and that really made an impression on Ruehle.

“I think that her experience is a prime example of two reasons that make this event so important,” Ruehle said. “It introduces people to options they were truly unaware of, and it dispels stereotypes about research science and scientists!”


Jerry Grillo
Communications Officer II
Parker H. Petit Institute for
Bioengineering and Bioscience


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