College program takes science to Minneapolis farmers markets

Farm Forum

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Minutes after looking at fruit through a microscope, elementary students Athena and Bear BlinSchauer were ecstatic.

“It’s cool,” Athena said.

“It’s so cool,” her brother, Bear, added.

The pair are frequent attendees of Market Science, a University of Minnesota outreach program that takes place at local farmers markets, the Minnesota Daily reported. University students and faculty who volunteer for the program say the goal is to pique the curiosity of children by making scientific research more digestible. The weekly sessions — held primarily at Midtown Farmers Market — feature activities like making poultices or peering through microscopes at fruit.

“We’re there explaining science in very simple terms and not dumbing it down in any way, just talking about very simple concepts,” said co-founder Mohamed Yakub.

Yakub said the event offers an opportunity for researchers to share their work, which he said doesn’t come often. In addition, he said, the program is meant to make science more accessible for kids of all backgrounds.

“We’re trying it a little differently than (is) commonly done,” said coordinator Beth Fallon. “We are going to a place that is not about science to talk about science.”

Fallon said more than 3,000 people visited their stand last year.

“People, in general, want to know more about how the world works, and you acutally have a chance to ask an expert about it, right there at the market,” she said.

Midtown Farmers Market manager Miguel Goebel said the community has embraced the program.

“The response has been really receptive and positive,” he said. “It gives kids something to look forward to when they’re coming to the market because there’s so many different cool things that they can participate in.”

While the activities are designed to appeal to kids, adults have taken to the activities as well, said John Benning, who leads sessions.

“The parents will come over, and they seem to really enjoy talking to active researchers and finding out what exactly is a scientist,” he said.

Benning said that one of the main goals of Market Science is to encourage anyone who is interested in science to pursue it.

He said that too often people picture a white male working over a microscope when they think about science.

“We’re trying to kind of break that image and show that a scientist can be anyone . and even beyond just ethnicity and gender, what scientists do,” Benning said. “Just the breadth of what science is is really incredible. It’s really just a way of processing the world that is open to anyone, really.”

As a child, Yakub said he overcame misconceptions about science himself, which is part of what inspired him to start Market Science.

“I am African American, but I am Indian descent. When I was growing up, my parents expected me to be a doctor, because that’s what science is,” Yakub said.

When Yakub entered college, he learned about the different possibilities of science outside of engineering and medical school. This led him to pursue a degree in biology and then a Ph.D. in plant biological sciences.

“And so I wanted to share (the different paths for science) with other kids who may not know that,” Yakub said. “I just want them to have an idea of what they can be, and they need not be a white man to accomplish those.”

He said Market Science chose its location and staff with a goal to increase diversity in science.

“It’s in south Minneapolis — there’s a lot of diversity in both race and economics,” Yakub said. “And we try to have women in our group; we try and have folks of color in our group to show everyone can be a scientist.”

Along with other co-founders, Yakub applied for a mini-grant from the Institute on the Environment in spring 2014. After it was accepted, the program launched the following summer.

Yakub said part of the inspiration to start the project came from seeing candid discussions of religion on the street.

“We were frustrated because we realized no one talks about science in a way to the general public,” he said. “We didn’t want to scream it out, but we wanted to talk it out to people out and about on the streets.”

Part of that frustration, Yakub said, ties into the politicized nature of science in today’s culture. He hopes that the program communicates science as an field worth discussing.

The program is now funded with grants from the University’s Institute on the Environment and the College of Biological Sciences, Yakub said, but he has also applied for multi-year grant from the state, which could expand the program.

“Depending on what avenues it goes, there are a lot of graduate students and young faculty who want to be out there,” he said. “I forsee this continuing for a long time in the near future.”