Science at the Market integrates community with scientific disciplines

By Thomas Block, Contributing writer

Before the majority of groggy University students lifted themselves out of bed, the downtown farmers market was already a festive explosion of shimmering hues, crisp smells and delectable tastes, with plenty of locally grown products available.

However, food wasn’t the only thing around that crowds were looking to take home. While many visitors were looking to feed their stomachs, a handful of families were looking to feed their brains.

Science at the Market ran from 8 a.m. to noon on Saturday in Lincoln Square during the Urbana’s Market at the Square. This is the eighth year the University has put on Science at the Market, where experts demonstrate different science experiences and answer questions from the public about various scientific disciplines.

Crowding around a meager but sturdy folding table near the market’s east entrance, a swarm of inquisitive children circled a bin of construction toys on the ground.

Being a particularly productive bunch, the children’s work — a jumble of colorful plastic geometric shapes contorted to form three-dimensional objects — projected their restless imaginations upon the pavement on which the objects rested, glistening in the early sunlight.

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The Illinois Geometry Lab laid out the presentation for this weekend’s Science at the Market. The department aimed to engage people of all ages, whipping out everything from creative toys to a 3D printer, the latter temporarily powered off due to the frigid air.

“It’s just warming up,” said Brian Shin, one of three student volunteers present for the department’s outreach effort.

This, of course, wasn’t the first time these math majors had presented at the farmers market, which is held every Saturday at the Lincoln Square Mall from May to November.

Sprouting from the mind of Inga Karliner, a seasoned researcher of the University’s physics faculty and coordinator for its outreach program, the Science at the Market series has become a welcomed staple for the weekly event since the series’ inception in mid-2010.

Sponsored by the Illinois Department of Physics, it has helped boost a firmer public understanding of the academic resources the community has to offer.

Though the volunteers representing the Illinois Geometry Laboratory took the reins for the tent last Saturday, Science at the Market regularly invites a wide variety of presenters from numerous scholarly backgrounds, not all of whom are based within the University.

David Leake, director of Champaign’s Staerkel Planetarium, made several appearances at the market over the summer to promote his institution’s support of astronomical education in the bordering Parkland College district.

“We made sure we were (at the market) before the eclipse,” Leake said, referring to last August’s solar eclipse.

Its path of totality crossed through Carbondale, a two-hour drive south from the University. Leake and other colleges were excited for the event.

“We had a big road map that showed the limits of totality and talked about where to go to see it. Yeah, we had a lot of people stopping by,” Leake said.

The particular showcase held last weekend was a special chance for locals to catch up with the Illinois Geometry Laboratory.

While parents from the area could pick up some handy information on what the University’s facility has been up to, the science table mainly hoped to spark the curiosity of the market’s younger attendees.

Instead of listing out bullet points on a pamphlet, Jeremy Tyson, director of the Illinois Geometry Laboratory at Altgeld Hall, oversaw the event last Saturday in person and ensured that the organization was portrayed in an active, animated manner.

“We focus on undergraduate research but also on community engagement and outreach,” Tyson said. “We use Science at the Market essentially as an opportunity to talk about some of the things we do, to get kids and adults excited about what our activities are like and to have kind of low-key fun events, just for the kids to stop by.”

Shin, a second-year Ph.D. student studying math at the University, became involved with the lab’s outreach activities within the past year. Enamored by the more entertaining subjects such as Science at the Market, he didn’t seem to put much thought into donating his time on Saturday.

“We just kind of showed up (this morning),” Shin said.

For Tyson, the market opens its door to stoke further interest in the future of the Illinois Geometry Laboratory, which is soon celebrating the University’s innovations in map making and networking spearheaded within the math department 40 years ago.

Eager to invite others to dig deeper into the subject, Tyson looked to catch the eye of Saturday’s shoppers just long enough for him to make a pitch.

If the kids’ fascination with the vibrant world of geometry was any indication of how adults will respond to the Illinois Geometry Laboratory’s most recent plans, then Tyson can expect quite a few visitors for next month.

“We’ll be able to say, ‘Well, for more information, why don’t you come to our upcoming (Illinois Geometry Laboratory) open house, which will be in November,’” Tyson said.

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