Elon faculty make STEM fun for local schoolchildren

A pilot project led by faculty members Martin Kamela and Dave Gammon brought Alamance County elementary and middle school students to campus for four days of science and math activities while Elon University students traveled away for spring break.

<p>Professor Kyle Altmann works with Alamance-Burlington School System students&nbsp;on electricity experiments.</p>
By Xernay Aniwar ’17

The sound of high-pitched chatter and giggling was audible throughout McMichael Science Center over Elon University’s spring break – a drastic difference from the usual quiet shuffling of college students.

With undergraduates away through March 28, faculty members took advantage of the empty building to host science-related activity sessions for children in the Alamance-Burlington School System. Over four days, the professors engaged hundreds of local elementary and middle school students with activities and demonstrations related to biology, math, physics and chemistry.

Faculty members Martin Kamela and Dave Gammon organized the pilot program. Both have been involved with science outreach through service-learning classes they lead: Gammon teaches “Science Without Borders,” a class that connects Elon students to elementary school students, and Kamela teaches “Science Education and Development” over Winter Term for students to set up and operate a traveling science center at partner schools in India.

From the Classroom

At 9 a.m. on March 22, Professor Karl Sienerth from the Department of Chemistry stands before dozens of 9-year-olds. Under a classroom whiteboard is a collection of brown bottles, pipettes and various containers of household items like lemon juice, borax, Epsom salts and aspirin.

Each child is seated in groups of three with a set of labeled glass test tubes, a few small empty jars labeled “waste” and a small container of purple liquid.

As one child examines the purple liquid, the student shouts, “What would happen if you drank cabbage juice?”

“Oh, that’s a good point,” Sienerth replies. “Don’t put anything in your mouth or on your skin! … But yeah, nothing much would happen.”

In fourth grade science, children start learning about pH levels and how acids and bases interact. Sienerth’s activity requires children to choose a substance, hypothesize the pH classification and then carry out a test to see if their hypotheses match the outcome.

“What’s a hypothesis?” Sienerth asks the class. Several hands shoot up. “To think something’s gonna happen,” said one student. Another interrupts, “an educated guess!”

“Right!” Sienerth said. “In science, being wrong is actually a good thing. It helps us find out more about the world around us. And sometimes, just guessing is okay.”

Each student tested substances and shared results with the class as Sienerth compiled the data on a chart at the front of the room. “Categorizing and classifying things helps scientists make sense of things,” he said. “We also categorize things to help us predict, but that doesn’t mean we’re always right.”

He had the class classify each substance into one of three categories: “medicine,” “food,” and “cleaning substances.” The chart they had compiled so far showed that while foods and medicines tend to be acidic, cleaning substances were always basic.

A roomful of 9-year-olds presents a different set of challenges than a typical Elon classroom. As they cleaned up, the children swarmed Sienerth.

<p>Associate Professor Terry Tomasek helps students with&nbsp;origami to help them learn more about math.</p>
“Look! I’ve gotten all my guesses right!”

“It’s still not working”

“That’s mine!”

“I dunno it was just in here”

“What do we do with these?”

“Are we gonna eat lunch in the Elon cafeteria?”

Almost every child had something to share and Sienerth was handling it well with assistance from the children’s homeroom teacher and from Associate Professor Kathy Matera, another faculty member from the Department of Chemistry. As the children leave, Sienerth and Matera grin at one another.

“It’s important to get kids interested and excited about science at a young age so they don’t end up as adults being scared of it,” Sienerth said. “They assume that if the word ‘science’ or ‘physics’ is in it then it’ll be too hard for them, but that’s not the case. Science explains the world, it explains everything.”

<p>Associate Professor Kathy Matera helps with chemistry lessons for local schoolchildren who visited Elon University while undergraduates were away on spring break.</p>
Math and Science

​Associate Professor Alan Russell is known at Elon for his popular course “Math Origami,” and he used his expertise to visually teach children about equivalent fractions and how to represent fractions as parts of a whole. Russell would later recall his own upbringing as the child of a single mother in a low-income neighborhood in North Carolina. “The only difference between me and some of these kids,” he said, “is 40 years and a little bit of mathematics.”

Physics professors Claudine Moreau and Kyle Altmann taught their class about electricity and magnetism. They spent their session building circuits and using mini generators to create electricity.

“One of them ran across the room to me and started tugging on my shirt like, ‘Ms. Claudine! You’ve got to see what I’ve made!’” Moreau said. “Lightbulbs were going on.”

She mentioned another child who she was watching throughout the session. “This one kid was refusing to write anything down in his book, but then all of a sudden I watched him start scribbling and explaining things to others.”

Moreau has her own child who requests trips to the science museums twice a month. “Kids are naturally really curious, especially at this age,” she said, “but I think that by the time kids leave middle school, they already hate science.”

A part of that disconnect is in the shortage of teachers in the STEM field. According to data from the National Math and Science Initiative, about one third of public middle school science teachers either did not major in the subject in college and/or are not certified to teach it.

Like Sienerth, Altmann agrees that there’s an intimidation factor to science that our society needs to overcome. “I’ve had teachers who are fearful of science and that’s where the disconnect is,” said Altmann. “We work hard (as science professors) to give a lot of enthusiasm. For teachers who doesn’t feel comfortable with the material, they don’t have that enthusiasm.”

Moving forward, Kamela hopes to assess how useful such field trips are to visiting students and teachers, and gage how well children learn from the particular activities in each session.

“Having such data may prove useful as discussion take place on the future goals of STEM disciplines and the expansion of science facilities at the university,” he said.