Partnership with the UNC Wonder Connection


The UNC Wonder Connection is a one-of-a-kind program that provides hospitalized children with a connection to the natural world via hands-on  science activities. Currently, the educational focus of the Wonder Connection includes natural science-based activities and lessons. Our research group has been working in partnership with the Wonder Connection for two years and together expanding their curricula into the physical sciences, with a particular focus in polymer science. Children undergoing long-term hospitalization at UNC primarily attend the UNC Hospital School and have unpredictable schedules, making hands-on activities difficult to implement. As a result, these students typically do not receive the same interactive scientific experiences as their peers. We aim to develop structured individual and group activities to increase student's competence, nurture their enthusiasm for science, and bring them the joy of scientific discovery.

Educational modules for inpatient interactions

Marcus & Ollie making prototypes of the hydraulic claw and providing assembly instructions in a YouTube video

Marcus & Ollie making prototypes of the hydraulic claw and providing assembly instructions in a YouTube video

High yield individual inpatient interactions require educational activities that are concise and flexible. Patients who choose to participate are of a broad age range and have unpredictable schedules, meaning an activity needs to be modular to students of different education levels and able to be stopped and restarted. We have recognized a need to create structured, portable, and multimedia-based modules that provide educational activities amenable to the inherent unpredictability of a hospital setting. As a test case, we created a module (in collaboration with a middle-school aged patient) that guided students in building a robotic claw operated by syringe-enabled hydraulics. The claw was made from 3D printed and laser cut parts from the UNC BeAM MakerSpace. A lesson plan was established that taught students about the different materials that comprised the claw and its mechanism of action. Parts for 10 claws were made, packaged, and delivered to the UNC Children’s Hospital for future patients to assemble. The patient and his mentor (Marcus Reis of the Leibfarth Group) made an instructional video for the kit and posted it on Youtube. The module has been successfully implemented with three other patients at the UNC Children’s Hospital as of July 2018.

For a lesson plan about the materials that make up the claw and its mechanism of action, click here!

For a press release detailing the scope and impact of Marcus & Ollie's work, click here!

Over the next five years, the Leibfarth Group plans to develop four more modules to to teach important concepts in polymer science through an inquiry-guided approach. The activities will be portable for storage at the hospital and will include numerous multimedia resources for patients to reference when an educator is not present. The proposed activities include: i) Material design strategies for making a robotic claw; ii) Polymers in your computer: How computer chips are patterned on the nanoscale; iii) Clean water through polymer science; iv) Slime: How crosslinking changes material properties; v) Kitchen Chemistry: The reactions needed to bake a cake.

Interactive Science-based Activities in Group Settings

The Leibfarth group leading outreach activities at the UNC Ronald McDonald House

The Leibfarth group leading outreach activities at the UNC Ronald McDonald House

The Leibfarth group also partners with Wonder Connection to host group science-based activities for both adolescent inpatients at the hospital and patient families at the UNC Ronald McDonald House. For these events, we are developing high-yield activities that can be effectively implemented in a group setting, which includes a course-packet for each module. The course packet consists of the scientific background of the activity (in accessible language),  an infographic, basic instructions for how to carry out the experiment, and follow-up questions for the students to think about after the activity. Facilitated experimentation time guided by members of the group is provided to encourage inquiry-guided learning. The Leibfarth group has led seven interactive group activities in the past eighteen months. Course-packets are available below and free for use for other who run scientific outreach projects.

Course Packets for group outreach activities (free for use): 1) The chemistry of slime; 2) Isolating casein plastic from milk; 3) DNA extraction from fruit; more coming soon!

MIT lab course: Introducing Flow Chemistry into Undergraduate Education

Professor Leibfarth, along with his postdoctoral adviser Prof. Timothy F. Jamison, developed and implemented a new undergraduate organic chemistry laboratory course at MIT entitled “Continuous Flow Chemistry: Sustainable Conversion of Reclaimed Vegetable Oils into Biodiesel.” The lab course was introduced into the curriculum at MIT (CHEM 5.37) in the Spring of 2015. The course has success run three times and 40 total students have completed the course. The course is expected to run annually for the next decade. A manuscript describing this work has recently been published in the Journal of Chemical Education. A description of the course is as follows:

"The four-week laboratory course leverages the pedagogical value and multidisciplinary nature of biodiesel production from vegetable oil to introduce students to continuous-flow chemistry, a modern and rapidly growing approach to chemical synthesis wherein pumps, tubes, and connectors are the vessels used to conduct chemical reactions instead of flasks, beakers, and other glassware. The series of activities and experiments uses an interdisciplinary approach to expose students to the practical and conceptual aspects of modern continuous-flow chemistry while simultaneously reinforcing core organic chemistry techniques and investing students in issues of sustainability. During the course of the lab, students learn the universal skill of working with syringe pumps, tubing, and connectors to build their own flow reactor and then use it to convert vegetable oil into biodiesel. The students are tasked to screen reaction conditions in-flow in an inquiry-guided approach and make evidence-based decisions to accomplish the sustainable conversion of waste cooking oil into biofuel. By incorporating the burgeoning field of continuous-flow chemistry into the educational infrastructure, the experiments provide opportunities for students to develop skills that are highly valued in the modern chemical workforce."

Childbirth Accomodation Policy at UCSB

Professor Leibfarth has long been invested in removing institutional barriers to diversity. This is best exemplified by his work spearheading an effort at University of California Santa Barbara to enact a Childbirth Accommodation Policy. Previous to this policy, getting a reprieve from a graduate student's educational responsibilities during or after childbirth required taking a formal leave of absence from the University. This resulted in the student losing financial assistance and being cut off from University subsidized health insurance. This policy let down students at their most vulnerable and caused many students to leave graduate school altogether. To enact a policy change, I assembled student groups, founded a formal committee through the Graduate Student Association, and negotiated with the Dean of Students and academic senate. His efforts led to a policy change in less than one year that gave students a one-year deferment of academic responsibilities without taking a leave of absence (Current policy can be found here). Further, students working as teaching assistants or research assistants received four weeks paid leave funded from a central account (not their advisers account). A letter was published in Science describing the efforts and encouraging other universities to follow suite.