Using a graduated cylinder, pipette and measuring spoon, third-grade students Niko Biryukov and Matthew Albertson set up their science experiment and then leaned in to see what would happen.
Almost as soon as they dropped a quarter-teaspoon of baking soda into a test dish, it began to react with the Sour Patch Kids candy inside, which sent a burst of small bubbles to the surface. The two smiled as they checked off their worksheet from the Maryland Agricultural Education Foundation’s mobile science lab on Wednesday.
“We’re testing candy to see if it’s bubbling. If it’s bubbling, it means it’s sour with an acid in it,” Niko explained after.
The foundation’s mobile science lab was parked at Sugarloaf Elementary School in Urbana on Wednesday to mark an important milestone of reaching more than 1 million students with agriculture-based science lessons since its launch in the mid-1990s. In the next few days, the entirety of the student body will also pass through the mobile lab and share the hands-on experience.
From inside the mobile lab, retired Middletown Elementary School teacher Sharon Fox led the group of third-graders through the next step in the experiment. She instructed them to get eye-level with the test dishes and see if a layer of foam had formed at the top of the sample. If it had, that was a sign that oil and wax were ingredients in the candy.
Charlotte Smith, 9, leaned down and looked at the dish containing her favorite candy, Starbursts. A layer of foam floated on the surface.
“I thought it was just sugar, milk and eggs!” Charlotte said.
It was “weird” to find out oil and wax were ingredients in her favorite candy, but she still plans to eat them despite her discovery, she said.
The candy experiment is part of the mobile science lab’s “Agricultural Products” lesson, said Jeanne Mueller, the elementary education director for the foundation.
All of the foundation’s labs focus on agriculture and are designed to educate kindergarten through fifth-grade students who, in increasing numbers, do not live on farms.
Mueller did not grow up on a farm. In fact, she attended school in Baltimore city. As an adult, however, she attended the Maryland Agricultural Education Foundation’s first Ag in the Classroom summer workshop and became fascinated with tying agriculture to the topics she was teaching in the classroom.
Mueller taught fourth grade at Liberty Elementary School in Frederick County for 10 years, and some of her students were the mobile lab’s original test users in the 1990s. After she retired in 1996, she took over as director for elementary education.
Teaching kids about food, fiber and where it comes from is important, she said.
“It’s something you never really think about, because we have so much food everywhere. And to take it back to its roots, really is an eye-opener for teachers and students,” Mueller said.
The Urbana students learned about much more than just candy on Wednesday.
Karen Zimmerman asked Erica Davis’ first-grade students to put their science hats on and think about chickens.
“We’re going to make a hypothesis. Now a hypothesis is your best guess. It doesn’t mean if you’re right or wrong. I just want your best guess,” Zimmerman said.
She held up a white, brown and green egg for the first-graders to see. She asked whether they thought the eggs would look the same or different on the inside. All the hands shot up into the air when she asked if they were the same.
They were right.
Zimmerman’s next question, however, was trickier.
She lifted Brownie, a light brown leghorn hen, out of her cage and asked the students to guess what color egg she lays. “Brown!” some of the students yelled in an eruption of guesses. After a few seconds, Zimmerman turned Brownie so they could see a small patch of pale skin on the side of Brownie’s head.
“Even though she has brown feathers, Brownie is going to lay white eggs,” Zimmerman said.
Then, Zimmerman lifted Snowball, a white Plymouth rock, out of the next cage and asked the students to guess again. They caught on fast and yelled “brown!” when they saw the red-tinted patch of skin against her white feathers.
“I liked seeing what color the eggs were and what chickens laid them, because I’ve got to learn about colors lately,” said Lillian Gibbs, 7, in Davis’ first-grade class.
Finally, Zimmerman lifted Einstein, a big, white-crested black polish rooster that the students lined up to pet.
Emma Grossman, 6, said it was her favorite part. “It was super soft.”
The chickens belonged to Zimmerman’s son, Bryce, who recently graduated from the Rochester Institute of Technology with a dual degree in engineering and economics. Bryce fell in love with the polish breed at a young age and started to show them in 4-H at age 8.
“I think it’s about showing and teaching kids about agriculture and giving them a chance to get up close and personal,” Bryce said on Wednesday.
Inside Sugarloaf Elementary, former dairy farmer Robert Ramsburg had a table full of dairy products — cheese, yogurt, onion dip and ice cream — lined up to show kindergartners. There wasn’t room for a real cow, but had one been there, she would have weighed more than all 20 students combined, he said.
A full-grown cow weighs about 1,200 pounds; the kids combined would have weighed only about 800 pounds.
It was important to talk about dairy in Urbana because the town was prime productive farmland 30 years ago, Ramsburg said. Nearly every one of those farms used to milk cows as well. Now, Frederick County has less than 100 dairy farms.
Next door, fifth-graders mashed strawberries in plastic bags as part of an experiment to extract DNA — the building blocks of life in every human, animal and plant cell — with local biotech company Thermo Fisher Scientific.
After squishing the strawberry into juice, they added a lysis solution — a combination of salt and water — and a bit of soap and poured it into a test tube. Then, they carefully poured rubbing alcohol over the mixture, which pulled long strands of DNA up and into view.
“It looks really weird. I didn’t think it would look like that,” said Searlait Hoyt, 11.
Searlait knows a lot about DNA from watching “Jeopardy” with her parents and two siblings. Once, there was a full category on it, she said.
Still, there were plenty of surprises among her peers as the long strands of DNA were pulled out of the mixture by the hydrophobic alcohol solution.
“I expected DNA to be smaller. I didn’t expect to actually see it. I expected specks,” said George Pullen, 11.
The DNA could be seen with the naked eye, because strawberries have eight copies of their DNA in each cell. If they had done the same experiment on human cells — that have only two copies per cell — they would have needed a microscope to see the DNA.
George thought the experiment was cool, and just a few minutes after the experiment ended, he was already thinking about the potential those tiny strands of DNA could hold.
“It interests me because I wonder what it’d be like if we went further with DNA,” George said.