MacGyvers in the Making: A How-To Guide for Starting Your Own Science Enrichment Program

"BOOM!" An unexpected explosion. darkness and a blood-chilling scream... then, red laser beams begin to dance around the room to an anxious, suspenseful theme.

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No, this is not an action movie, nor a play at a local theater. This is the Harvard ExperiMentors' Science Day, where more than 200 children are embarking on a daylong foray into forensic science. If you've ever wanted to feel like a Hollywood director while nurturing your love for science and serving your community, then read on!

Science Day is the annual culmination of a yearlong science enrichment program conducted by Harvard ExperiMentors, a volunteer organization that sends members into the Cambridge school system to teach hands-on science. Working in pairs, ExperiMentors take on the rap that science is dull and boring. Through lessons such as "The Imploding Coke Can" to teach gas laws and "The Glowing Pickle," which puts electrochemistry into action, they make science accessible to youngsters.

Working hand-in-hand with teachers, the volunteer group complements the elementary school science curriculum.

"[ExperiMentors] brings something special to whatever we're teaching, something that really sparks the kids," says Debbie Pierce, a third grade teacher in Cambridge.

The elementary students are not the only ones who benefit. Volunteers also reap rewards from their participation in such programs. They see it as a refreshing break from the academic grind of college, a way to step away from their books and into their communities, and share anew the excitement of discovery.

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Teaching a room full of often-rambunctious 8-year-olds challenges the volunteers to both learn the science backward and forward and to develop their communication skills.

"Teaching helps you to better articulate and gives you confidence speaking in front of people," says Anne Beaudreau, a four-year volunteer and former director of the program who graduated in 2001.

Similar programs exist at other universities around the country. If you want to start one, all you need is a little bit of initiative. The first step is to contact members of the local school system. Some systems will require you to work through a central administrator's office, while others may prefer that you work with individual schools' principals and teachers (as ExperiMentors does). It is important to stress that the volunteer program will complement the science curriculum at the school, not compete with it. You should be prepared to work with teachers to coordinate activities and responsibilities.

In preparing for your meetings with members of the school system, try to anticipate questions and be prepared to answer them. Be ready to discuss sample lessons that could be used in a variety of scientific areas (see the end of this article for links to such lessons). And remember, this is a collaborative effort, where the experienced teacher often will be able to help you.

You also will have to speak with the appropriate dean or advisor of student programs at your university. Often, the group will need to have some sort of official recognition, as there likely will be issues of legal liability.

Once you determine the scope of interest and the number of classroom hours you have to fill, you need to start recruiting volunteers. This can be as simple as e-mailing other student groups or putting up posters advertising an introductory meeting around campus. Some colleges even have activities fairs for students interested in volunteer activities. Don't forget the honor societies in the sciences and in education, whose members often provide a fertile pool for recruitment.

Now that you have a set of volunteers, it's time to think about how you can raise money for group supplies. It might be possible to receive the necessary funding from your undergraduate institution or the school system, but if not, local businesses provide another possibility. Businesses are often receptive to raffle donations because raffles give them publicity.

In addition, other common fund-raisers include auctions, bake-sales, and membership fees. Keep in mind that groups, like ExperiMentors, can operate on extremely low budgets because many of the things needed for experiments are everyday household supplies. Indeed, that science "magic" can be created from common materials is part of the excitement generated by this type of volunteer program.

Part of the magic also comes with volunteers who are well trained before entering the classroom. An elementary school teacher wouldn't stand at the front of the class without training, and the same holds true for undergraduate volunteers. A series of training events featuring guest speakers from local schools would be a great way for volunteers to learn how best to treat their classes.

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These very pointers - and a lot of enthusiasm - have been pivotal to the success of the ExperiMentors group. Back at Harvard's ExperiMentors Science Day, a highly trained forensics expert from the Cambridge police department briefed the young science sleuths on the tools of the trade so they could catch a kidnapper accused of waylaying a professor.

After the requisite period of head scratching, the young detectives hit their task in full force, identifying the kidnapper's fingerprints, examining the ink in a ransom note, and using lie detector tests on suspects. Within a period of a few hours, they handily captured the defiant deviant and turned him over to campus authorities. Meanwhile the kidnapped professor was safely returned to her office, comforted by the numerous hugs and high fives she received from her young deliverers. To celebrate a job well done, the young science sleuths were rewarded with autographs from all parties involved.

If you're interested in teaching hands-on science, check out the ExperiMentors website. You can also take a look at the links below.


Related Links

Annenberg/CPB Exhibits (interactive clips with basic science information) Bill Nye the Science Guy's Web Search Page (lots of crazy, simple demos; make sure your computer has Shockwave before entering) Boulder Valley School District (Boulder, Colorado) Science and Math Initiatives and The Teacher Help Service (resources for math and science teachers including lesson plans, libraries, and an online help service) Gleason Sackmann's Lesson Plan Links (lots of links to other lesson plans on the web) Human Anatomy Online (human anatomy lessons) Kids' Science Projects by Bill B. (basic science activities for kids) Lycos Zone's Science Page (lots of different science ideas) Microscopes, Cells, DNA, and You (hands-on inquiry science resource for elementary teachers-in-training; including lessons adaptable for the upper-elementary classroom) Neuroscience for Kids (great information on the nervous system and neuroscience made simple for young kids) Newton's Apple Teacher's Guides (activities from the PBS television series, organized by topic) Red and Green "Electricity" by Bill B. (great electricity experiments) San Diego State's Biology Lessons Website (EXCELLENT lesson plans - some on water and other areas) Science for Kids (lots of topics with good information on the ocean, animals, and physical science) Science Made Simple (lists of science experiments and answers to common science questions) South Carolina Midlands Improving Math and Science Hub (check out the lesson plan links; also a search engine for math and science teachers' resources)

Southeastern Michigan Math-Science Learning Coalition's Lessons by Subject, Lessons by Age, Experiment Tips

SpaceKids (cool pictures and information on NASA and space travel - go to the Teachers Corner for tons of ideas and sample lessons) Teachers Helping Teachers: Science (a huge list of lesson plans on many topics, made by real teachers) Water Science for Schools (general facts about the water cycle, pollution; good facts sheets) The Why Files (common questions in the news (why is the sky blue?) answered; great for general information) Wild Inside Nature Programs (great nature activities catalogued by age and topic; superb site)
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