When the students gathered in the classroom one afternoon this fall, they grabbed their name cards, wrote their lesson plans on the whiteboards lining the walls, and hung their backpacks on hooks. They then rushed to check out the science equipment and supplies that would help with the day’s lesson on microbes.
As their instructors began the lesson and the work began, one of the young scientists realized, “I have fewer germs on my hands!” she squealed as she compared her findings to 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. For five weeks this fall semester, St. Olaf students in a first-year seminar titled Who is science for?? designed and taught various STEM lessons in Greenvale as part of a community education program for second and third grade students.
On this particular afternoon, St. Olaf students were leading their young scientists in a biology experiment. Elementary students spread fluorescent gel on their hands, washed their hands as best they could, and then — after turning off the classroom lights — examined with a flashlight how much of the fluorescent gel representing the “germs” was still visible. It was a way for the students to find out for themselves how they could help or hinder the spread of germs.
The 27 students from St. Olaf in the seminar, which is part of the new first-year curriculum, sharpen their critical thinking, discussion, research and writing skills to prepare for their college experience. And in this class, taught by Associate Professor of Biology and Education Emily Moll, they do that by making science come alive for other, much younger students.
“Growing up, I was always hyper and curious, and it makes me smile to see elementary school kids excited to learn new things,” says Kenan Chunbia ’27. “Listening to elementary school kids asking questions about science and just seeing them giggle and laugh as we do experiments with them makes me proud.”
“Listening to elementary school kids asking questions about science and just seeing them giggle and laugh as we do experiments with them makes me proud.”
Kenan Chunbia ’27
Working with young scientists is a new experience for Kenna Schumack ’27. “My favorite interactions so far have been the ones where I was able to talk to the students individually and I was able to answer their questions and see what they thought about the experiments,” she says.
The seminar is an Academic Civic Engagement (ACE) course, meaning that a major component of the class involves some form of community engagement — such as working with a local elementary school. ACE Director Alyssa Melby notes that last year, St. Olaf has had 802 students participating in ACE courses. These courses allow Oles to apply his education to real-world situations for the common good.
“Being able to do this ACE project as part of the course is something I wanted to do as a science education professor,” says Mol. “It’s a way I can work with students to explore an important topic in a hands-on way. I am grateful for these community partners and the opportunity to learn from them.”
“It’s a way I can work with students to explore an important topic in a hands-on way. I am grateful for these community partners and the opportunity to learn from them.”
Associate Professor of Biology and Education Emily Moll
During the seminar, students from St. Olaf also examined the representation (or lack thereof) of certain communities and demographics in science, including scientists. One of the assignments the students had was to interview a science professor on campus or research a scientist they were interested in to find out what motivates a scientist to do their work.
“People often think that science is just a collection of ideas, but there are some the people in science,” says Mol. “It’s a feeling of getting to know who scientists are as people, which I think people often overlook.”
Creating an inclusive environment for all scholars—both instructors and entry-level students—is something Abnazer Abadi ’27 says he definitely took away from the workshop.
“One thing I learned from the students is how important it is to make sure I can create a safe and welcoming environment for the 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 in general more inclusive.”
“When we were preparing these experiments, the main goal for me was how I could make the experiments and science in general more inclusive.”
Immortal Abnazer ’27
Part of Mohl’s larger vision is that this course could help inspire the relaunch of the Science Alliance, a student organization that was active before the pandemic. Science Alliance members went to local schools and did science activities with children as an after school program.
“We have a lot of institutional resources to do this work, and I think the community really appreciated these experiences that the students had,” Mol says. “I thought if we could give the students in this first-year workshop opportunities to do those activities, it would help them recover some of the knowledge that the students have here.”
The students from St. Olaf were able to use what they were learning in their current college-level courses to prepare lessons for elementary school students. “I was able to use things that we were currently learning in my chemistry class about electrochemistry and find a way to get the kids to understand the flow of current and electricity in solutions,” Abadi says.
Grace Swigham ’27 says she enjoyed working with the students at Greenvale this fall. “They are all very eager to learn and bring great energy to our sessions,” she says.
The hope St. Olaf students have for their young students? That someday these Greenvale scientists will join their Ole teachers in sparking scientific innovation.
“They will be our next leaders in society after us, so we have to take care of them,” Chunbia says. “We must continue to support their curiosity and push them to be future leaders.”