Connecting with the Community Through Science

May 4, 2011

There are many news stories about how US students are falling behind in math and science to their global counterparts. But right here in New Jersey – in Camden – the New Jersey Academy for Aquatic Sciences is working hard to promote science education, particularly for under-represented minorities, in an effort to nurture tomorrow’s scientists, teachers, leaders and good citizens.

Each Wednesday in May, we’ll hear from past and present participants of the Community and Urban Science Enrichment Program (CAUSE) about the impact of this program on their lives and on Camden.

Throughout the year, the CAUSE program works with high school teens and eighth graders on personal and professional life skills development, as well as a wide variety of science concepts, some of which these students would never encounter unless they pursue a science major in college. “The teens not only get hands-on experience in learning these concepts, but they also learn and develop new ways to introduce some of these very important concepts to children of all ages,” says the Academy’s Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Angela Wenger. She adds, “This journey of learning and teaching science unlocks confidence, passion, talent, individual artistic expression, leadership, and connections with the environment and each other.”

Today’s post is by Janay M., a CAUSE program mentor and college student:

By Janay M.

NJAAS logoHow does one make learning seem like fun, like you are not learning anything at all? When a group of young adults walks into the classroom of young students for the first time with the mission of teaching them science, both parties would be somewhat apprehensive. “We’re going to learn about Science? This is going to be like school.” This is a phrase often heard from new and unsuspecting CAUSE camp participants. But, it is the goal of the CAUSE program’s Interns and Explorers to blow this expectation out of the water. It is in this experience where the CAUSE teens shine in connecting with the community through science.

As an eighth year participant, and now mentor in the CAUSE program, I have witnessed an evolution of sorts when it comes to the CAUSE program giving the gift of science to the community of Camden. The entire program period that occurs during the school year is geared toward preparing the summer’s adventure known as CAUSE Camp. CAUSE Camp is the program’s major outlet in connecting with the community. CAUSE Interns (high school students) and Explorers (8th graders) go into two of Camden’s schools and teach a five week program on a science topic that they themselves have written curriculum for. The trick to this is making those hours spent in a classroom, on school grounds, seem fun, and not like school at all.

In my earlier years, the creativity levels of the lessons and activities were quite impressive. All of the activities were built by the teens to reinforce the science concepts for that day. There have been activities ranging from chemical experiments to building almost life-sized models of submersibles with the campers. The program has always had a great connection between creativity and science. Then as the community outreach methods improved, things such as characters began to make regular appearances in the CAUSE Camp classrooms. Two of the first recurring characters were Coral and Reef, two crime scene investigation agents that would introduce a different “crime in nature” to CAUSE Camp participants, who then had to carry out an investigation using clues from the day’s lesson to solve the crime.

Program Staff models instruction

But, by far, the primary teaching method that evolved from years of trial and improvement in the CAUSE program was the E-5 model. The Five E’s are a necessary factor in providing a fun and successful learning environment. Those five E’s stand for engage, explore, explain, elaborate, and evaluate. The engage and explore are the two most crucial parts of this method. This is where you grab the attention of your audience and take them on a journey to explore a topic. We have discovered that, in essence, making a fool of yourself to grab and hold the attention of a classroom full of kids is one of the greatest ways to do so. It is in this that I truly commend all of these Interns because at this age, teens are usually worried about how they present themselves to each other and strangers. They are usually worried about looking “cool,” but these guys, they are never afraid to put on a show. They write the most creative skits and create and wear the most outrageous costumes, all in the name of science. They use those creative antics to deliver messages such as how dune grasses help protect the beaches against erosion and how the water cycle works.

Modeling characters for the CAUSE program

The singing and dancing, the demos and activities, and the skits, may lead one to think these kids are having way too much fun to be learning anything. Yes, and there have even been a few instances where I thought to myself, “This is too good to be true.”

Are we really teaching kids, who can be as young as five, these science concepts? I mean yes, it’s fun and entertaining, and we do review games and ask them questions, but they couldn’t possibly be retaining this information, right?

But then, I run into one of my campers at the local grocery store and they greet me with hugs and smiles and then their parents say to me, “She came home and couldn’t stop talking to me about the water cycle and that silly little dance you guys taught her to help her remember, AND, she yells at me every time I leave the water running when I brush my teeth.”

It is in those brief moments where I realize that what we do really has an impact on these kids’ lives and our community as well. This is one of the many reasons why I find myself returning to this program time and time again. To know that what we do impacts children in a community where the student drop out rate exceeds the national average, and some of the students that we have reached out to in CAUSE Camp then become teachers in the program (while still in high school), like I did, shows that connecting with the community through science is indeed entirely possible, and it is a huge part of the CAUSE program. •

This series continues next Wednesday.

Images used with permission from NJAAS

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