December 4, 2018
When you ask college students to spend a day volunteering in a middle school classroom, they typically cringe. Who can blame them? After all, very few of us look back on our middle school years with fond memories. Yet every October, approximately 40 first- and second-year undergraduate students from Skagit Valley College (Mount Vernon, WA) venture out into their local middle schools to celebrate National Chemistry Week with over 1000 students.
This annual outreach event is specifically targeted at a cohort of students currently enrolled in the 8th grade at LaVenture Middle School (Mount Vernon School District, Mount Vernon, WA). LaVenture is a dual language, low-income, majority-minority middle school serving approximately 800 students in grades 6 through 8. One mile away in the same district, Mount Baker Middle School houses a similar, although slightly more affluent, demographic of students. Both middle schools take pride in their strong STEM programs and offer multiple courses for which their students can receive high school credit. And for the last 3 years, both middle schools have held a strong partnership with the chemistry program at Skagit Valley College.
The collaboration between the Skagit Valley College chemistry program and Mount Vernon School District wasn’t always such a large event. It started in 2011, when I visited a first grade classroom at Lincoln Elementary School (Mount Vernon, WA) to celebrate National Chemistry Week. It was my first venture into community outreach, and I was absolutely energized by the children’s raw enthusiasm for science. Our science activity was almost comically simple - each child had a cup of water and dropped items of their choice into the water to see if the item would dissolve. By the end of my one-hour visit, the children were frantically looking for just one more thing to try to dissolve. When I left at the end of the hour, the classroom was wet, chaotic, and full of energy.
Each year since, I have returned to the same cohort of children. I followed them through elementary school, visiting their classrooms, judging their science fairs, and attending their “math nights”. I was even there for their 5th grade promotion ceremony, handing out hugs and holding back tears as I watched “my kids” move on to middle school. (At this point in the story, I need to confess that I’m not only a community volunteer, but I’m also the parent of a child in this particular cohort of children.)
Fast-forward to 2018, “my kids” are now in the 8th grade, and I still continue to visit them every year. They’ve traded their chubby cheeks and toothless grins for hairstyles and headphones. They’ve stopped calling me “Miss Roxi” and started calling me “Dr. Smith”. But they still wave when they see me in the grocery store, and they always ask when I’m coming to visit them next.
When I visit their classrooms these days, it takes a small army of undergraduate volunteers and significant community support. Our 2018 National Chemistry Week program put approximately 40 first-and second-college students and five faculty into 36 middle school classrooms. In two whirlwind days, Skagit Valley College students collectively gave over 150 volunteer hours to ensure each middle school student had a positive, rewarding, and exciting experience with STEM. Our efforts reached approximately 1200 6th, 7th, and 8th grade students, including the small group of first graders I met back in 2011.
This year, our outreach received funding from the Puget Sound Section of the American Chemical Society, the Skagit Valley College Foundation, and private community donors. We were also honored to receive a NISE Net Explore Science: Let’s Do Chemistry kit, which we brought along for our National Chemistry Week outreach in October. Each science classroom at LaVenture Middle School received a different experiment from the Let’s Do Chemistry kit, and the students were encouraged to freely explore and modify the kit’s experiments. I am happy to report that our Let’s Do Chemistry kit barely survived its two days at LaVenture Middle School: Each experiment was sturdy enough to last for two days and survived the hands-on use of hundreds of students, and the significant wear and tear is a true testament of how much the kids enjoyed the activities developed by the NISE Network.
Shaunna Holcomb, LaVenture Middle School Science Teacher, assists 8th grade student with the NISE experiment Rocket Reactions. Ms. Holcomb added food coloring to the Rocket Reaction and challenged her students to leave a permanent mark on their classroom ceiling.
A couple weeks after Skagit Valley College’s visit to LaVenture Middle School, I happened to overhear a large group of 8th graders - kids that I’ve known and worked with for many years - talking about the experiments we had brought to their classrooms.
One of them reflected on how “cool” it would be if they could take the NISE Net experiments back to their former elementary school, visit their old classrooms, and lead a group of younger children through the NISE experiments. They started brainstorming additional experiments they had enjoyed during their years in elementary school and all agreed it would be “so cool” to teach science, “just like the college kids teach us”.
And then they turned to me and asked “hey, do you think we could actually do that?”
And so begins a new adventure in community outreach.
Dr. Carl Bruner, Superintendent of the Mount Vernon School District, observes an electrolysis apparatus built by a group of 8th grade students at LaVenture Middle School.
A Skagit Valley College sophomore (right) takes some time to chat with two LaVenture Middle School students.