McArdle 'Blog' photoMcArdle Blog L7 ~ 4/25/2014

McArdle in the Community: Having fun while teaching at Science Expeditions

How do you explain something as scary and complicated as cancer to kids? Bubbles, of course!

On a sunny weekend in April 2014, students from the McArdle Laboratory for Cancer Research and the UW-Madison Cancer Biology graduate program participated in the “Science Expeditions” event held at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery (WID). Their plan: to create an interactive model that would allow students in preschool through middle school to visualize the uncontrolled cell growth that takes place during cancer, and also to understand that certain activities can contribute to cancer development.


To do this, our graduate students came up with an idea that involved dry ice and soap. When you add plain water to dry ice, it creates a “fog” (which is often used in fog machines on Halloween). In the context of a cancer analogy, this fog would represent normal cell division. But when you add soapy water to dry ice, lots of bubbles form . These bubbles would stand for the uncontrolled cell growth characteristic of cancers because they just won’t stop growing.

When children came to the McArdle/Cancer Biology exhibit station, they were given squirt bottles containing soapy water and labeled with names of cancer causing agents (such as smoking or bad genetics) or squirt bottles containing plain water and labeled with good habits (exercise, healthy food).

BubblesThe children were then asked what would happen if the soapy or plain water was added to the “cells”, or dry ice in the dishes in front of them. The kids were able to visualize “normal” and “cancerous” cell growth, and they had fun at the same time!

Other concepts, like cancer therapy, were introduced as well. The children were asked to predict what would happen if they tried to poke the bubbles. Could they get them all? They found out that sometimes the bubbles would just keep growing, no matter what was done.

Why do McArdle students want to get involved in teaching kids about cancer? Some students wanted to introduce them to science in a different way than it is presented in the classroom. Jaye Gardiner, a graduate student in Dr. Nate Sherer's laboratory, explained that her goal was not “to teach them (the visiting children) about cancer per se, but share with them what I work on and convey that they can study these types of things and figure out how they work.”

Other students wanted to provide information about a common disease that is often glossed over because it is too scary. One child explained that cancer was when you have a hole in your tooth, confusing it with a cavity. Parents were especially happy with how dry ice and bubbles were used to create an interactive and engaging visual that allowed their children greater insights into cancer.

Another student helping out with Science Expeditions pointed out that “it’s great to know that kids already correlate everyday habits and activities to things that can be bad for your health or contribute to cancer.” This is an astute observation, and the students representing McArdle Lab/Cancer Biology at the Science Expeditions event did a great job reinforcing these concepts to the visitors.

Thanks to the efforts of everyone who contributed to the planning and execution of the exhibit; the day was a great success!

~Jessica Lang