Who is science for?
As students gathered in a classroom one afternoon this fall, they grabbed their name cards, took notes of the lesson plans on the whiteboards lining the walls, and hung their backpacks on hooks. Then they rushed over to check out the scientific equipment and supplies that would inform the day’s lesson on microbes.
As their instructors began the lesson and work got underway, one of the young scientists had a realization: “I have less germs on my hands!” she squealed as she compared her findings with those of her lab partner.
This is not a lab of professional scientists at 3M or one of the high-tech research spaces at St. Olaf College. Rather, it’s a classroom that hosts an after-school science program at Greenvale Elementary School in Northfield. During five weeks this fall semester, St. Olaf students in a first-year seminar titled Who is Science For? designed and taught various STEM lessons at Greenvale as part of a community education program for second and third grade students.
On this particular afternoon, St. Olaf students led their young scientists in a biology experiment. The elementary students spread their arms with fluorescent gel, washed their hands as best as they could, and then — upon switching off the classroom lights — investigated with a flashlight how much of the fluorescent gel, representing “germs,” were still visible. It was a way for students to figure out for themselves how they can help, or hinder, the spread of microbes.
The 27 St. Olaf students in the seminar, which is part of the new First Year Experience curriculum, are sharpening their critical thinking, discussion, research, and writing skills to prepare for their college experience. And in this class, which is taught by Associate Professor of Biology and Education Emily Mohl, they’re doing this by making science come alive for other, much younger students.
“Growing up I have always been hyper and curious and it makes me smile seeing the elementary school kids get excited about learning new things,” says Kenan Tchounbia ’27. “Hearing the elementary kids ask questions about science and just seeing them giggle and laugh while we do experiments with them makes me proud.”
“Hearing the elementary kids ask questions about science and just seeing them giggle and laugh while we do experiments with them makes me proud.”Kenan Tchounbia ’27
Working with young scientists is a new experience for Kenna Schumack ’27. “My favorite interactions so far have been those where I have been able to talk with students individually, and have been able to answer their questions and see what they are thinking about the experiments,” she says.
The seminar is an Academic Civic Engagement (ACE) course, which means that a major component of the class includes some form of community engagement — like working with a local elementary school. ACE Director Alyssa Melby notes that last year, St. Olaf had 802 students participate in ACE courses. These courses enable Oles to apply their education within real-world situations for the common good.
“The opportunity to do this ACE project as part of the course is something I have been wanting to do as a science education professor,” Mohl says. “This is a way that I could work with students to explore an important topic in a practical way. I am grateful for those community partners and being able to learn from them.”
“This is a way that I could work with students to explore an important topic in a practical way. I am grateful for those community partners and being able to learn from them.”Associate Professor of Biology and Education Emily Mohl
During the course of the seminar, St. Olaf students also explored representation (or the lack thereof) of certain communities and demographics in science, including scientists. One assignment that students had was to interview a science professor on campus, or research a scientist that they care about to find out what motivates the scientist to do their work.
“People often think science is just a collection of ideas, but there are also people in science,” says Mohl. “It’s a sense of getting to know who scientists are as people, which I think people often overlook.”
Creating an inclusive environment for all scientists — both instructors and elementary students — is something that Abnazer Abadi ’27 says he definitely took away from the seminar.
“One thing that I learned from the students is how important it is to make sure I can create a safe and welcoming environment for people around me,” Abadi says. “When we were preparing these experiments, the main goal for me was how I could make the experiments and science as a whole more inclusive.”
“When we were preparing these experiments, the main goal for me was how I could make the experiments and science as a whole more inclusive.”Abnazer Abadi ’27
Part of Mohl’s larger vision is that this course can help inspire the restart of the Science Alliance, a student organization that was active before the pandemic. Members of the Science Alliance went into local schools and did science activities with kids as an after-school program.
“We have a lot of institutional resources for doing this work, and I think the community really valued those experiences that the students were having,” says Mohl. “I thought if we could give students opportunities in this first-year seminar to do these activities, that would help them rebuild some of the knowledge that students had here.”
The St. Olaf students were able to use what they’re learning in their current college-level courses to prepare lessons for the elementary students. “I was able to use stuff we were currently learning in my chemistry class about electrochemistry and find a way to make the kids understand the movement of current and electricity in solutions,” says Abadi.
Grace Swiggum ’27 says she loved working with the students at Greenvale this fall. “They are all very eager to learn and bring great energy to our sessions,” she says.
And what is the hope that these St. Olaf students have for their young students? That some day these Greenvale scientists will join their Ole teachers in sparking scientific innovations.
“They are going to be our next leaders in society after us, so we must take care of them,” says Tchounbia. “We must continue to support their curiosity and push them to be future leaders.”