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Science Ed: Never Too Cool for School

During Manchester Avenue Elementary School’s sixth annual science fair, USC Dornsife’s Sean Curran shares with students exciting scientific research with an example of his study on aging worms.

USC Dornsife assistant professor Sean Curran speaks to Manchester Avenue Elementary School students at its sixth annual science fair. Photo by Dietmar Quistorf.
USC Dornsife assistant professor Sean Curran speaks to Manchester Avenue Elementary School students at its sixth annual science fair. Photo by Dietmar Quistorf.

“How long do people live?” USC Dornsife’s Sean Curran asked a crowd of students at Manchester Avenue Elementary School.

“Until they die,” one student quipped.

“Good answer!” laughed Curran, USC assistant professor of molecular and computational biology in USC Dornsife, gerontology, and biochemistry and molecular biology at the Keck School of Medicine at USC.

“OK, how long do you think you’ll live? To 70? 80? 90? 100?”

By the time Curran reached 100, all of the students’ hands were in the air. Needless to say, these sixth-graders are looking forward to long lives.

Gerontology, Curran explained to the students, is the study of aging: how people grow older and live longer. Curran was one of a half-dozen speakers at Manchester Avenue Elementary’s sixth annual science fair who helped to explain what scientists do and why their work is important and exciting.

Among other things, Curran studies aging in worms, and he wowed the audience by telling them that his lab could extend the average three-week life of a worm to 30 weeks.

“That’s 10 times as long,” he told the students. “How many people here would like to live to be 1,000?”

Hands shot into the air.

The teachers, not so much. Noticing that, Curran added that gerontology is also the study of how to improve the quality of a long life.

“How many of you play basketball? How many of you would like to keep playing when you’re 100?” he asked. The crowd was a sea of raised hands.

All of Manchester Avenue Elementary’s roughly 1,000 students participated in the science fair in some way. The younger students worked on projects in class, guided by their teachers, while the older students split into groups of four and worked more independently.

Some of the top projects were on display in the auditorium where Curran and his fellow speakers addressed the students. The projects tackled questions such as “What is the best way to keep fresh-cut flowers the longest?” and “What happens to a plant without air?” and even “What brands of bubble gum produce the biggest bubble?” using the scientific method (which, in the case of that last project, involved a lot of gum-chewing).

Speakers at the event included representatives from USC, the UCLA, the Los Angeles Unified School District, the Los Angeles Council of Professional Black Engineers and even the Los Angeles Police Department — specifically a helicopter-flying lieutenant who earned his undergraduate and master’s degrees from USC and credited his full-ride college scholarship in part to hard work in math and science classes.

Jessica Thomas, an instructional coach at the school, served as emcee of the event. “Get your minds focused on math and science,” she said. “This is when it really counts.”

Afterward, Curran said that a set of speeches at a similar event when he was about the same age had helped to inspire him to pursue an education in the sciences.

“I like to think that was the turning point for me,” Curran said. “This is a great opportunity for students to interact with science in a nonclassroom setting. I love events like this — I think they’re great.”