The moment of discovery for future scientists may be dipping their feet in the ooze.
Xuwen (Amy) Lou remembers the Science Night in January when the older teens guided the younger students through a dozen learning stations of experiments in biology, chemistry and physics.
A senior at the Harrisburg Academy, she held the hands of each second-grader as they took off their shoes and socks and stepped into the semisolid puddle of corn starch mixed with water.
“They could lift up their feet to see how it works,” Lou said. “They just looked so amazed. It was something they had never experienced before.”
The reaction she saw on each face was worth the long hours of preparation that went into the annual Science Night event. For Lou, an exchange student from China, it was mission accomplished.
“When I started doing it, I was thinking we could provide opportunities for kids to see that science can be fun,” Lou said. “I wanted to provide something that I didn’t have to the kids.”
Growing up in Hangzhou, a city southwest of Shanghai, she was taught only to memorize the facts and figures of science in preparation for tests. Her school in China offered no opportunity to learn science through hands-on lab experiments.
“I remember when I was in middle school I was told by my science teacher that girls are not supposed to be good at science,” Lou said. “He didn’t say it in a mean way.” Instead the teacher claimed the male brain was more logical and had greater reasoning ability.
“Hearing someone I respect say that made me upset,” Lou said. “I was really upset because I wanted to be good at science and I liked all the subjects.”
Her perspective changed after she arrived in the U.S. and was enrolled at the Harrisburg Academy in September 2015. She liked how students in Pennsylvania schools learned science through experimentation.
In June 2016, Lou returned to China to participate in a monthlong internship program at a hospital that treated patients with autism and hyperactivity. The staff used auditory integration training where autistic children listened to music that was modified to help their brains develop language and social skills.
“I was really suspicious of the treatment because it simply didn’t make sense to me,” Lou said. “I asked the doctor if I could try it. I listened to the music and got really bad headaches for three days.”
Though a painful lesson, the experience sparked a curiosity within her to look beyond the moment and find solutions through science. The Harrisburg Academy opened other doors for Lou.
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In September 2016, middle school science teacher Lakshmi Shrikantia came across an article online about a school that offered a Science Night for younger students. She shared that idea with Lou and together they set in motion planning for a Harrisburg Academy event in January 2017. The first event was so successful the school held another Science Night this January.
Aside from showing kids that science is fun, Lou wanted to encourage girls to pursue their dreams. “It’s not about science itself,” she said. “It’s about little girls realizing that they do not have to give in to that stereotype … that they have the ability to do whatever they want.”
Lou proved it to herself by participating in two internships last summer. In June 2017, she returned to China to take a course on genetic engineering at the Cold Spring Harbor Lab in Suzhou. A month later, she was off to Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, for a six-week program on the exploration of biological research and public health.
The work suited her and she has ambitions to become a researcher. “When I am in the lab, I can experience a 100 percent focus without any distractions,” Lou said. “I enjoy staying focused. It gives me satisfaction.”
Upon graduating from Harrisburg Academy, Lou plans to attend college in the U.S. to earn her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biology with an emphasis in genetics. Her goal is to return to China and organize Science Night-type events there to influence future generations. Meanwhile, she plans to initiate Science Night events wherever her career takes her.
Lou would like to see Science Night continue at the Harrisburg Academy after she leaves in June. An effort is already underway to continue the event by way of a student committee representing grades 9-12. Some middle school students are also interested.
“I want to thank all the volunteers, teachers, students and administrators that helped to make this possible,” Lou said. “It means a lot to me. I feel honored to have people like that I can work with.”
Interest in art
Aside from science, Lou is a budding artist with a love for drawing. She became interested in art after she enrolled at the Harrisburg Academy and uses drawing on the weekends as a release valve from her studies.
“It’s my way of relaxing,” she said. “It would be nice for me to use my ability to draw to illustrate science procedures. We all need the pictures in the textbooks to help us know what is going on. That kind of job requires an understanding of science which I think would be interesting for me to try.”
Since September 2015, Lou has been a co-editor and the head of design for The Insider, the student newspaper. Her talent shows up in the layout of each edition.
Like many of her generation in China, Lou is an only child in a country that had for many years a one-child policy for families. She is getting used to the idea of living with a host family of parents and four children in the Harrisburg area.
“I get along with my host siblings pretty well,” Lou said. “I’m really happy that I get to know them and spend time together, but I also get to know the part where we annoy each other with weird habits and pet peeves.”