Graduate Students Bring Hands-on Science Education to Area Elementary Schools

STONY BROOK, NY -- Melinda Rucks loved rocks. As a kid, she was constantly collecting them, filling her pockets and backpack – and then forgetting about them until laundry day. But for her, it was a microscope, a gift from a family friend for her ninth birthday.

Katherine Shirley had an affinity for the moon; her mom served in the military and the moon was their shared touchstone. But for her, it was an inflatable planetarium – the kind you crawl inside – with all the stars circling around.

makers' faireThe microscope and planetarium are vivid memories, the defining moments Rucks and Shirley, both doctoral candidates in Stony Brook’s Department of Geosciences, point to when reflecting on what first caught their interest in science.

When they decided to get involved in one of Stony Brook’s outreach programs bringing science education to local students, they wanted to participate in a program providing the kinds of experiences that inspired them. They wanted to work with grade-schoolers.

The programs they found, however, were largely geared toward high school and undergraduate students – students who have already decided if they are interested in science.

 “We want to get that interest,” Shirley said. “We want to plant the seed.”

For girls, especially, it’s important, she said. “Studies show that girls do really well in math and science until middle school, and then social pressure takes over. We really want to spark an interest before that.”

So Rucks and Shirley developed a new initiative, Graduates for Education and Outreach (GEO), to engage those younger learners.

star chartThey gathered about a dozen volunteers and working with Gil Hanson, a faculty member in their department who has organized similar outreach efforts, identified areas of Long Island where schools might benefit from GEO. Joel Hurowitz, another Geosciences faculty member, introduced them to his wife, Tanya Hurowitz, then the assistant principal at Nathaniel Woodhull Elementary School. She, in turn, put them in touch with the teachers – who were pleased to invite subject matter experts to work with their students.

The final step: secure funding for supplies, which they did through RIS4E, a project led by their advisor Timothy Glotch in the Vibrational Spectroscopy Lab. Science caught him early, too: “For me it was two things: a small telescope that I used to first start looking at the planets when I was 7 or 8 and a book on the planets of the solar system that my parents gave me for Christmas when I was about the same age. I wore the cover off of that book.”

Logistics set, the GEO volunteers piloted their first program last spring with the fifth graders at Nathaniel Woodhull.

The Stony Brook team was at the school twice a month. A volunteer proposed a lab, taught it to the group, and gathered all necessary materials – in one case, low-cost pH test paper homemade with cabbage juice for an acid-base lab. Rucks and Shirley shared the proposed lesson with the Nathaniel Woodhull teachers a week in advance so they could prepare the students with a bit of background information. Then, on “Science Day,” as the students called it, GEO volunteers taught the lab to the students.

“We’re not just talking at them about science,” Rucks said. They are participants, and they are “getting a feel that they can, even at this age, actually do science…hopefully that cultivates an interest they invest in.”

We also want them to see what scientists look like, she said. “We have a lot of women who volunteer with us, and we’re showing all these young kids, that we are doing science – that’s what we do, and, if they wanted, they could do that as a job, too.”

 All the lessons – from the constellation lab with the star charts to the crystallization lab with the borax crystal ornaments – have been well-received, but perhaps none as enthusiastically as the volcano demonstration.

“That’s because we’re doing a controlled explosion,” Shirley said. “They really enjoyed that.”

The students “love the hands-on activities and enjoy and look forward to the graduate students coming,” said Carol Mistretta, a fifth-grade teacher at Nathaniel Woodhull. “They give our fifth graders a better understanding and love of science and prepare them for science in middle school.”

GEO returned to Nathaniel Woodhull this fall and, with additional volunteers and funding, Rucks and Shirley hope to expand the program to more schools.

They are in the third year of their PhD programs, and before they graduate, they hope to see GEO become an institution. “The goal is to make this something that the graduate community takes hold of to cultivate partnership with the community,” Rucks said. They are working with the Graduate Student Association to register GEO as an official club.

“It’s very easy when you're in graduate school, or even when you're a faculty member, to suffer from tunnel vision and only concentrate on the next task to get you incrementally closer to graduation, or whatever your goal is,” Glotch said. “GEO is a great example of students stepping outside of their detailed research projects and contributing to something bigger.”

Interested in participating in GEO? Contact Melinda Rucks at melinda.rucks@stonybrook.edu and Katherine Shirley at katherine.shirley@stonybrook.edu for more information.