Eye trick gets young minds pondering science in Ceres

jfarrow@modbee.comAugust 4, 2013 

— Six Enochs High School students spent hours Sunday playing a trick on younger children — all in the name of science and education.

The seniors in the school's Forensic Biotech Career Pathway Program set up tables at the Ceres Flea Market, where the Latino Community Roundtable was giving away backpacks and school supplies to hundreds of children.

The teens and their teacher, Dave Menshew, provided the supplies and guidance needed to make Benham's discs — black-and-white patterns that create the illusion of colors when spun.

With bags of marbles and plastic bottle caps, hot-glue guns and stacks of compact discs and paper patterns, the teens were prepared to make discs for as many children as stopped by. Late in the morning, they were busy with six young girls — all in beautiful, colorful, traditional dresses — who were performing at the flea market with Folklórico Tonantzin out of Newman and Gustine.

Enochs student Rachael Devaughn, 16, helped Maria Isabel Guillen, 12, make her disc and explained the science behind it.

"It was cool because at first I just saw black and white, but when they spinned it, I saw colors ... like purple and red," said Maria, a seventh-grader at Yolo Middle School in Newman.

Earlier in the morning, 13-year-old Jordan Heiny, an eighth-grader at Hart-Ransom School, was among several boys making discs.

"We got to see different colors, which was like an optical illusion," he said. The student guiding him "told me it has something to do with the rods and cones in our eyes."

Indeed, a student-prepared handout in English and Spanish read, "When you spin the disc, the black and white appear to take on colors. Scientists believe that is because the rod and cones in your eyes interpret the information differently, making you think colors are there that really are not."

Forensic biotech applies science to matters of law, and Menshew said Sunday's activity was an example of the problem with the reliability of eyewitness reports.

"It tells you that your senses can be fooled ... A witness may say he saw a green car, when it really was a brown car."

Menshew came to have his students — who in addition to being in the career pathway program are members of the Enochs Biotech Club — at the backpack giveaway because he learned of it through sitting on the Hispanic Leadership Council. He thought it would be a good opportunity for the students — Mariah Allen, Marianna Garcia, Austin Frisk, Jamie Duarte, Aidan Bertaina and Rachael — to do community service and share the message with children that science is fun.

Little Maria already knew that, though. She said she likes science because "you get to create new things. I even do it at home sometimes. I just, like, mix up any kinds of things, like shampoo, and then I call it something."

The Enochs students regularly find that kind of enthus-iasm for science when they do outreach programs, such as "fun with science nights" at elementary and middle schools. Rachael called Sunday's project "more of a novelty."

At schools, "we usually do a DNA extraction lab," she said." That involves crushing strawberries and mixing them with a buffer (soapy water) and isopropyl alcohol. The mix breaks down the cell wall and cell nucleus, and then the children "fish out a little DNA," she said. "It looks like snot, so the kids get a kick out of it right away."

While science is fun, it's also serious and important work for the current and former students of Enochs' forensic biotech program. Menshew said graduates of the program are doing research at the University of California at Merced and Davis, San Jose State University and other universities. And the current students will be working this year with the University of the Pacific in Stockton. Enochs students will make proteins that UOP grad students will test for possible use in medicines to treat the disease bovine trichomoniasis.

As for future students, Menshew hopes they'll come from the likes of the children who visited Sunday's science project table. He encourages children who couldn't attend to search "Benham's disc" online to find downloadable patterns to make their own and to experiment with them under different conditions.

"We've seen different effects depending on the lighting," he said. "People report seeing different colors under incandescent light, fluorescent light and outside in natural light."

On the Net: www.exploratorium.edu/snacks/benhams_disk.

Bee local news editor Deke Farrow can be reached at jfarrow@modbee.com or (209) 578-2327.

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