The semester has barely started, but it’s once again easy to find yourself bogged down with work. Sometimes it’s hard to imagine a time when you aren’t stuck in a constant cycle of eat, sleep, study. But some students at the University have found a way out.
Through the Wesleyan Science Outreach Club and another program called Kids’ Night, run through the Astronomy Department, students at the University have been planting the seeds of scientific thought within the minds of elementary school children in the Middletown community.
Founded in 2007, the Wesleyan Science Outreach Club’s purpose has been to engage young minds with science. According to the club’s co-coordinator, Madeleine Junkins ’16, the club’s tasks are twofold: writing exciting lesson plans for elementary school students and running the program Kids Korner at five different elementary schools in Middletown.
According to Junkins, the club is also associated with a class called Informal Science Education for Elementary School Students.
“It is listed on WesMaps under ‘CHEM241’ in the fall and ‘CHEM242’ in the spring,” Junkins wrote in an email to The Argus. “It is an Ampersand course, meaning that it is two credits but you must take both semesters of the class in order to earn any credit. The goal of the class is to develop exciting science lesson plans that will be taught in an informal setting—namely, an elementary after-school program.”
However, taking the class is by no means the only way to take part in this club. Many students, such as Julia Clemens ’16, volunteer. While Clemens has not participated in the planning of the science classes, she has done plenty of hands-on teaching and helping out.
“This past semester I helped out with classes where kids had to do things like building a sturdy chair, learning how to use levers and wedges, and making a crystal,” Clemens said. “In the past, we’ve done other stuff like learning about the food wheel and making a fake stomach in a bag. [The classes] have a really wide range.”
Usually the kids enjoy these activities greatly, but Clemens’ volunteer work has its own set of challenges. Keeping elementary school children interested can be tricky at times.
“A lot of the times, science club isn’t as interesting as playing dodgeball in a gym or something like that,” Clemens said. “But then sometimes we’ll be doing something that looks really cool, like one time they all had to wear goggles and then every single kid wanted to do that. That [day] was a little overwhelming because I was the only person teaching about 20 small children who really were there just to play with the goggles. So it can be hard to keep them interested and focused.”
Despite the challenges, Clemens still enjoys the work she does as a volunteer for the club.
“Since high school, I’ve always enjoyed working with kids,” Clemens said. “I didn’t really do anything freshman year. I thought that this would be a fun way to work with kids and also teach [them] something valuable, and it has been really fun.”
The idea behind Kids’ Night is in the same vein as the Science Outreach Club. This particular program was started by graduate student Jesse Shanahan during the 2014-15 school year. It aims to get children interested in science by hosting bi-monthly events on Friday nights for children and their families at the Van Vleck Observatory.
“Before coming to [The University], I had a lot of experience doing outreach with kids,” Shanahan wrote in an email to The Argus. “When I came here and saw that we only had a regular adult program, I proposed Kids’ Nights. Once I pushed forward with the idea, a lot of people were interested because it’s a lot of fun. You get to do science experiments, observe with the telescopes, and you get to engage with really excited kids.”
According to volunteer Melissa Joskow ’18, the Kids’ Nights usually consist of three activities. Often, one of those activities is looking through the telescope, while the other two are more crafts-related.
Joskow said that the kids tend to get most excited about looking through the telescope, particularly when it’s a clear night and they can see an actual planet or a bright star. When the kids are doing crafts, the activities are still subtly centered around emphasizing scientific knowledge.
“There’s this one activity where the kids were supposed to make their own galaxies, and they could choose between making an elliptical galaxy or a spiral galaxy,” Joskow said. “We used a special glue where if you shined a UV on it, it would light up to sort of represent that different stars shine brighter or dimmer in different wavelengths of light. I don’t know if they necessarily got that, but they were definitely excited by the UV light changing what the galaxy looked like. [It] was really cool to have that extra element in the activities, so that it wasn’t just [the kids] drawing on a piece of paper.”
Regardless of the fact that both of these programs are focused on science, many of the students who lead the program are not potential science majors.
“You don’t really have to know that much in-depth astronomy knowledge—a basic knowledge of astronomy is enough to teach these kids about what they learn,” Joskow said. “I think that it’s the best thing the [Astronomy] Department does, and hopefully they will continue to do it and hopefully even more people will volunteer to do it, not just astronomy majors but students who are interested in kids, science, and making kids excited about science.”
While these programs have the common goal of expanding children’s scientific awareness, it’s clear that the real joy comes from encouraging children to have fun with learning.
“The most rewarding part about being involved with the program is watching the elementary school kids’ faces light up when they learn something new,” Junkins said. “Even if the lesson of the day doesn’t stick with them forever, I still feel great knowing that our program is helping to prime them for a positive experience with the sciences later in life.”