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Turning lemons into LemonAid

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May 16, 2011

Had it been any other day, the professor and the 11-year-old may never have met.

But when Mark Farmer, chair of the division of biological sciences showed real-life images of microscopic organisms to a Whitehead Road Elementary School class, Joseph Cervantes' face lit up.

"I didn't know that termites don't really eat wood," the fifth grader said. "They eat it, but it's the little things inside their stomach whose job it is to break it down. They're the ones who really eat it."

His enthusiasm was the product of a UGA outreach program called LemonAid. Every year, while university students take a day off from classes to prepare for final exams, their instructors visit schools in the Athens area to stoke the academic interest of young minds.

It began last year, when professors used their furlough days to meet with students, The event was so successful that professors brought it back again.

"Originally we were providing aid to the public schools and trying to make something good out of the 'lemons' of furlough days; that's where the name came from," Farmer said. "This year, I think it's important to show the citizens of the state of Georgia that we are not disconnected from the community, so I got the idea that even though we don't have furloughs this year, we'll make it an outreach event."

From faculty in the dance department to researchers in biochemistry and molecular biology, more than 20 professors from across campus signed up to volunteer their time in area schools.

"Both the governor's office and the [University System of Georgia] chancellor have been looking for opportunities for public employees to do more with volunteerism. So we went ahead and organized LemonAid 2," Farmer said. "[Falling on May 3], it fit well with the school system. They've just finished statewide testing and yet are still in session, and that day was Reading Day for us. So, we could do this without negatively impacting the teaching of our classes or theirs."

The teachers love it. Barbara Taylor, the instructor who hosted Farmer's 90-minute "Mr. Microscope" presentation, said not only does it hold her students' attention, it reinforces their educational goals.

"One of our fifth-grade standards is microorganisms, so this was perfect for us," she said. "The students learned about DNA and cells in the first quarter, so they're ready for this kind of stuff."

In addition to Farmer, other faculty who participated in LemonAid 2 were Jeb Byers, ecology; Wendy Dustman, microbiology; Rachel Gabara, Romance languages; Stephen Hadjuk, biochemistry and molecular biology; Tim Hoover, microbiology; Anna Karls, microbiology; Jim Lauderdale, cellular biology; Joe McHugh, entomology, Michele Monteil, GHSU/UGA Medical Partnership; Kannan Natarajan, biochemistry and bioinformatics; Ron Orlando, biochemistry and molecular biology; Max Reinhart, Germanic and Slavic studies; William Said, cell biology; Paul Schroeder, geology; Richard Steet, CCRC/BCMB; Kecia Thomas, psychology; John Wares, genetics; Mark Wheeler, dance; and Ying Xu, biochemistry and molecular biology.