St. Olaf College | News

Students create a ‘science alliance’ with elementary school classrooms

St. Olaf College sophomores Cassie Paulsen (left) and Emma Chapman work with Associate Professor of Chemistry Greg Muth on a stationary bike that charges a battery when pedaled — one of several demonstrations that helps them bring science to life for local elementary school students. Photo by Pumla Maswanganyi ’16

Armed with a stationary bike, a handmade wind turbine, and a group of volunteers, St. Olaf College students Emma Chapman ’15 and Cassie Paulsen ’15 are bringing hands-on science to local elementary schools.

The two have created a curriculum for young scientists as part of the Science Alliance project. Their work, supported by a grant from the Max and Victoria Dreyfus Foundation, dramatically expands a project initially started in 2010 by Associate Professor of Chemistry Greg Muth and Ben Auch ’12.

Chapman and Paulsen aim to foster relationships between teachers, community members, and St. Olaf students through a curriculum that inspires methodical thinking with a focus on renewable energy. The Science Alliance introduces young students to ways of organizing and recording data, making a hypothesis, making scientific observations, and coming to a conclusion.

To help students achieve these goals, Chapman, Paulsen, and Muth spent the month of January developing four stations that accompany them to every classroom. Students may choose to apply the concepts they have learned to a stationary bike, which charges a battery when pedaled; a makeshift wind turbine that displays energy output; a bucket of water and various spigots representing volts and amps; or light bulbs filling in for the sun in a solar energy demonstration.

“I pitched the stations to Cassie and Emma, and within a few days they knew exactly how they were going to present them to the students,” says Muth. “I was amazed at how quickly, professionally, and beautifully they advanced the project in ways I never could have, so I let them run with it.”

Learning from the classroom
So far the team has visited a handful of classrooms, leaving each one with more ideas on how to improve their program for the next set of students. “We have just one curriculum that we bring to third-, fourth-, and fifth-graders. We’re learning this is something we need to adapt, as the kids are at such different levels,” says Chapman. “When we go into the classroom, we really have to feel our way and get a sense for how the classroom works.”

Both Paulsen and Chapman know the importance of smoothly integrating their projects into each classroom’s schedule. “We want to make it into more than a one-day thing,” says Paulsen. “We hope to develop some pre-visit reading that can be incorporated into their class curriculum. Or we want to have the teachers help students relate the lesson to real life and connect it to one of their ongoing units.”

While tailoring their program to unique classrooms is difficult, the team has received a lot of positive feedback from the teachers and students they visit. Their first visit was to a fourth- and fifth-grade classroom at Prairie Creek Elementary School, which resulted in an enthusiastic review of the project on the school’s website.

“It’s so rewarding to feel like you’re making a difference and to see the students become really engaged in the activities,” says Chapman. “It shows the kids that science is accessible to everyone.”

Looking forward
Chapman and Paulsen will continue working on their program this summer as part of the St. Olaf Collaborative Undergraduate Research and Inquiry (CURI) program. One of their main goals is to expand the curriculum to a wider range of grades and to include neighboring communities.

“Part of our dissemination process is to make this curriculum available for teachers all over Minnesota,” Paulsen says. “Another goal would be to include Carleton College and other nearby colleges in our project.”

Having seen the progress of Science Alliance from its inception in 2010, Muth is pleased with the work that Chapman and Paulsen have done this year.

“What I learned is that I needed more inspiration, and more help planning and coordinating to serve the needs of the population,” says Muth.  “Cassie and Emma are incredibly passionate about science education and community outreach. They were what the project needed.”