Visitor Information Center middle school tour gives students day-in-the-life glimpse

Steve Smith, outreach coordinator for the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, demonstrates the force of atmospheric pressure by removing air from a plastic bag, subjecting the volunteer to a "squeezing" sensation, due to the stretching of the plastic bag caused by the difference in internal and external air pressure. (Purdue University photo/Mark Simons)

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Every year, more than 2,000 middle school students gain a glimpse of college life through the Visitor Information Center's middle school tour program.

After more than a decade of hosting tours, the center convened a focus group with middle school teachers and administrators in summer 2010. That group established a new direction in order to meet both the hopes of the educators and the interests of the students.

"What we heard most from the educators was that the students simply needed exposure to what college is and what doors it opens to them," says Cindy MacDonald, assistant director at the visitor center. "Many of these students do not have family who have attended college, and even students from our area have never set foot on campus to know what it's like."

Interest in the Purdue program has increased steadily from 21 middle school visits during 2009-10 to an anticipated 40 schools visiting in 2011-12. Eighteen schools have scheduled visits this fall.

MacDonald attributes the increased interest to the pressure on students to make college decisions earlier in the high school years.

"Students determine their path to college in eighth grade when they meet with their counselor in the spring and determine their freshman class schedule," MacDonald says. "This program supports a career exploration component in their middle school curriculum.

"If we can get middle school students excited about college, and more specifically excited about Purdue, it increases their probability of going to college."

The student-led visits, offered every Tuesday and Friday, give middle school students a glimpse into the day-in-the-life activities of a Purdue student, from working on an assignment in the computer lab to attending a classroom presentation and eating in a dining court.

To begin their day on campus, students participate in an introductory session designed to get them excited about the idea of going to college and highlight opportunities Purdue provides. Following that presentation, students are given helpful tips on how they can begin to plan for college now. The tour also gives the young students the chance to ask a panel of Purdue students about their experiences.
"A grade-level goal of ours is to expose our students to the possibilities in their future," says Vicki Giordano, a science teacher at Riverview Middle School. "Purdue's tour program has certainly cemented that with our children."
A favorite of students, MacDonald says, is the "Learning and Discovery @ Purdue" talk.  That part of the program offers Purdue schools and colleges a chance to highlight their programs by featuring a faculty, staff or graduate student sharing their knowledge through an interactive demonstration or hands-on activity.

From airplanes, calligraphy and "fighting shrimp" to animal skulls, bugs and electric guitars, these students see, do and learn more about the many disciplines at Purdue in a manner that resonates with a young teenager.
"Students are unaware of the awesome opportunities that lie ahead of them as science continues to shape our future," says Steven Smith, outreach coordinator for the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences. As a presenter for the program this semester, Smith has featured his air pressure presentation, a look at how atmospheric pressure affects convection currents and cloud cover.

"My presentation starts with interactive components, such as using air pressure to crush cans or vacuum wrap a student," Smith says. "While those are always great attention grabbers, the most important part of the presentation is getting across to children that any of them can be a scientist -- all they need is a question."
Any department that would like to showcase its program with an interactive presentation or hands-on activity for the middle school students as part of the visit program is encouraged to contact Cindy MacDonald at or 49-49017.