Sparking Scientific Young Minds

F&M’s Science Teaching Internship Program has been kindling a love of science in children for more than a decade.

Franklin & Marshall student Maura Hennigan ’13 thought it seemed like a simple warning. But for fifth-graders at James Buchanan Elementary School, the phrase “handle with care” took on a life of its own.

Leading the class at Buchanan through F&M’s Science Teaching Internship Program last fall, Hennigan taught a science session on mixtures and solutions. One exercise required students to saturate citric acid—a mild irritant found in high concentrations in lemons and limes—in water. Hennigan explained the details of the exercise, urging students to handle the chemical with care. The warning caused students to theorize the potential dangers of the experiment.

“If I get it in my eyes, will they melt?” one student asked.

“If I eat this, will my insides explode? Will I turn into a pile of goo?” asked another concerned student.

Hennigan, a biology major at F&M, put their minds at ease—but said the questions were priceless. “My students were always curious. They had very vivid imaginations,” said Hennigan, who is teaching two fifth-grade classes at Buchanan this spring.

Photo by Dave Debalko

F&M students have been educating curious young minds at Buchanan and other schools for more than a decade through the College’s Science Teaching Internship Program, an initiative now supported by an endowed fund from the Booth Ferris Foundation and a grant from the Alcoa Foundation. The program gives F&M students a chance to develop teaching and leadership skills while introducing students in local elementary schools to the wonders of science. Creative experiments are often the most memorable moments for the interns and their students, from miniature volcanic eruptions (with help from baking soda and vinegar) to fireworks in milk (with an assist from food coloring and soap) to crime-scene investigations (in which children learn about the scientific method by searching for a missing imaginary bear).

The interns are vital components of a powerful relationship between F&M and the School District of Lancaster that combines the College’s intellectual vitality with its commitment to the community, says Professor of Geosciences Carol de Wet, who established the program with the school district in 2000.

“Children learn that science is exciting, while F&M students become enthusiastic about teaching,” de Wet said. “The program’s longevity is an indicator of its value to F&M and the schools.”

Samantha Pravder ’13, a biology major and applied mathematics minor at the College, is among more than 250 F&M students who have taught science classes at Buchanan and other schools since the program's inception.

“On my last day in the classroom, I received thank-you notes from all the students,” Pravder said. “One child wrote, ‘I want to be a science teacher when I grow up.’ I knew I had made an impact, and it felt so good.”

A Partnership is Born

Several factors converged in 2000 to help launch the Science Teaching Internship Program, de Wet said. The North Museum of Natural History and Science—at the corner of College and Buchanan Avenues on the southern end of campus—set a goal to expand its community outreach after acquiring new collections of artifacts related to natural history. At the same time, there was a strong push within the School District of Lancaster to enrich science teaching at the elementary level.

Meanwhile, de Wet was having conversations with several science majors at F&M who wanted to devote time to community service. But the students had little time for public service because of rigorous academic schedules that often included multiple three-hour labs each week, in addition to classes.

“We had so many students with a passion for science and teaching, but there were no community-based learning opportunities back then,” de Wet said.

An internship-for-credit program solved the problem. Five F&M students taught at Buchanan and Wharton Elementary School in the spring of 2000, followed by 15 students in the fall, and 14 more the following spring. A thriving partnership was born.

F&M students traveled to the nearby elementary schools to teach lessons and hosted students in laboratories at the College, all while making use of the North Museum’s natural history collections. “The museum had a set of animal paws set in resin, including beaver, deer and fish fins,” de Wet said. “It was a great way to get students thinking about adaptation through something tangible.”

De Wet led the program until 2004, and again from 2007 to 2009. Associate Professor of Biology Robert Jinks and Associate Professor of Geosciences Andrew de Wet also served as advisers for the program.

Adjunct Assistant Professor of Biology Ellie Rice took the reins in 2009. It was a natural fit for Rice, who developed a passion for education while working with middle school and high school students through the National Science Foundation’s GK-12 Fellowship Program as she completed her Ph.D. at Cornell University. At F&M she coordinates outreach with local teachers, including efforts funded by a bioinformatics grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI).

Rice introduced a course in 2012 for students participating in the internship program. The course, held each semester, helps F&M students navigate the challenges of leading a classroom filled with curious children, teaches them how to develop effective lesson plans and provides guidance in strengthening their teaching methods.

“Until now, our students have been consumers of education,” Rice said. “Now they become providers of education. They have to capture an audience and command the classroom. That's the hardest transition for them to make.”

 Breakthroughs in the Classroom

De Wet estimates that almost 12,000 students in the School District of Lancaster have experienced a science class with an F&M student over the past 13 years, marking a considerable impact by the college interns on local science education. But the effect of the program is just as significant on the F&M students, many of whom consider teaching careers as a result of their classroom experiences.

For recent F&M alumna Adela Korn ’12, the internship confirmed a longtime desire to work with children. Korn previously worked as a camp counselor, volunteered with Big Brothers Big Sisters and participated in various after-school programs. When she heard about the science-teaching internship from a friend, it seemed like the perfect fit. Now Korn teaches pre-kindergarten at the Bronx Early Learning Center in New York's South Bronx through Teach For America (TFA), the national corps of top college graduates who commit to teach for two years in public schools around the country.

“The internship gave me real classroom experience. In the teaching profession, you need that experience to be successful,” said Korn, who is also working on a dual master’s degree in early childhood education and special education at Hunter College. “Books are helpful, but the real breakthrough happens in front of kids. Putting theory into practice is ultimately what you need.”

As she prepared for the TFA position, Korn took comfort in knowing she could lead a classroom with confidence.

“The first two or three lessons I led at Buchanan were very daunting” Korn said. “But midway through the semester I got comfortable in the role and excited about it. I felt a strong connection to the kids. It was nice to reflect and see my progress as a teacher in such a short time.”

Pravder experienced similar personal growth during two semesters as an intern, initially with first- and second-graders and then with third- and fourth-graders.

“I was quiet and nervous at the beginning,” Pravder said. “A lot of what I was nervous about was behavioral problems with the kids. But I grew as a leader in front of the students, and became much more able to control a class. I’m more confident now. Controlling a class of 7- and 8-year-olds helps you gain confidence.”

Like Korn and a handful of other science-teaching alumni, Victoria (Ryland) Campbell ’11 joined TFA after graduating from F&M. A psychology and theater double major at the College, Campbell previously taught dance and Sunday school classes—but never led a classroom until her internship.

“I thought my role in education would be as a guidance counselor or activities coordinator,” Campbell said. “After entering the [classroom], I knew I wanted to be a teacher, if not forever, at least after college. Working with the students inspired me to raise my awareness of education in our country and begin to define where it needs improvement.”

 

Making Science a Priority

F&M’s Science Teaching Internship Program has evolved as schools across the United States place more emphasis on science, technology engineering and math—the “STEM” fields. The Pennsylvania System of School Assessment test evaluates the science skills of elementary students beginning in fourth grade, increasing the importance of the F&M interns’ work in the classrooms.

“The STEM push is ubiquitous. We’re heavily pushing scientific practices in our schools,” Rice said. “So we’re asking ourselves, ‘How can we play a positive role in STEM?’”

A 2009 survey by F&M graduate Megan Hays ’09 indicated that F&M students had a positive impact on local classrooms with regard to science education. Hays, who participated in the internship program for two semesters, conducted the independent study under the supervision of de Wet.

“We wanted to assess the program to provide a baseline for how it was working,” Hays said. “Aside from student-teaching assignments, schools that do not offer teaching degrees usually don't have anything like this program.”

Hays’ survey of teachers at Buchanan and Wharton concluded that F&M interns effectively covered the science curriculum, enhanced science education within the classroom, communicated easily with students and enhanced students’ enthusiasm for science. Ten of the 11 teachers surveyed used the lesson plans from F&M interns in their own future lessons.

Scott Aukamp, a fifth-grade teacher at Buchanan, has worked with at least one F&M science-teaching intern for three consecutive years. He said the interns make learning fun for his students, illuminating science in ways the children clearly understand.

“I love having the F&M interns in my classroom because they find so many different ways to present the information in ‘kid-friendly’ terms,” he said. “They always find creative ways to go behind the teacher’s manual and incorporate their vast knowledge into their lessons.”

Perhaps the best part, Rice said, is the positive view elementary students develop about science as a result of their time with the college students.

“They associate science with young, fun, cool faces. And they have a connection to college,” Rice said.

The F&M interns also gain a new appreciation for factors affecting education attainment, even at the elementary level. Some children struggle because of issues out of their control, such as poverty and homelessness—issues the vast majority of F&M students have not faced.

“You never want to think that a student’s education would be affected by the neighborhood they live in or their socioeconomic circumstances,” Korn said. “That’s why TFA is important to me. It focuses on closing the achievement gap.”

As the program enters its 14th year, F&M students continue to develop new perspectives as a result of their time in elementary school classrooms. Looking back on the program’s influence on students—both at F&M and in the elementary schools—de Wet is confident of the program’s success, in part, because of what she sees in the journal entries she asked the interns to write in previous years.

“This program has truly changed our students’ perception of education,” de Wet said. “It’s exciting when I read the journals and see how our students have changed. They’ve grown up and seen the world in new ways.”

 

Photos: Dave Debalko


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