Jun 29 2012

Students Mentor Students to Foster STEM Interest

Sometimes, high-schoolers are the most valuable, cost-effective resources for engaging young students in science.

While teaching physics to high school students a few years back, Judson Wagner had an idea: How about recruiting some of his more enthusiastic students to visit elementary school classes to get younger students excited about science?

He figured that K–5 teachers would view such visits as intrusions that would disrupt instruction. But as he later learned, “That wasn’t the case at all.”

When Wagner took over as the STEM program manager for the Brandywine School District in Claymont, Del., he found that the elementary school teachers welcomed high school students into their classrooms. Thus, Wagner’s idea became a reality.

“The elementary kids are so excited about these high school kids coming in,” Wagner says. “The esteem that the young students have for the older ones is incredible — sometimes more than any adult in their lives. They’re like rock stars.”

Often, the high school students break kids into small groups — about four per group — to show them that science is interesting and approachable. In one lesson, the high school students help the elementary school students fill petri dishes with milk and drops of food coloring. The older students then ask the younger ones what they think will happen when they touch the milk with toothpicks that have been soaked in dish soap. Once predictions are made, the elementary school students dip their toothpicks and discover that the milk separates and the food coloring rises to the top. All students then discuss with the teacher why this happened.

The high school students not only are sparking interest and teaching the younger kids but also are benefitting from the program. Business leaders in all industries say they need science, technology, engineering and mathematics professionals to be good communicators so they can explain things to executives or investors when needed. Working with the kids improves the high school students’ communication skills, Wagner says, citing a quote from Albert Einstein: “You do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother.”

Wagner adds, “If the high school students try to talk ‘smart’ with an elementary school kid, they’re going to lose them.”

There’s also a benefit for the teachers, many of whom find teaching math and science intimidating. They also can learn from the high school students, but in a nonthreatening way, because the high-schoolers are also students.

Making these classroom drop-ins work isn’t easy, Wagner says. Schedules conflict, and high school students have to find transportation to the elementary schools. The program is voluntary, but the high school students and the elementary school students and teachers gain so much from it that the headaches are worth it, he says. “These kinds of opportunities seem to be win, win, win.”


Learn how school districts create long-term funding strategies for their STEM programs at edtechmag.com/k12/STEMfunding0312


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