Madison Kao adjusted the camera to best fit her soon-to-be homemade lava lamp into frame. She wanted to be sure each step of the assignment was clear enough to be easily replicated later.
A sophomore at Union High School, Kao is part of a group of student tutors who hold monthly tutoring sessions in science and math for elementary and middle school students across Evergreen Public Schools.
On Thursday, she and her fellow tutors were preparing materials and recording lessons to be shown to kids at Open House Ministries’ homeless shelter in Vancouver. The group’s lessons will be featured as part of science day, the first day of a weeklong set of activities for the kids to stay engaged and busy during their spring break.
“It’s a great opportunity for kids and volunteers, a real plus for both of us,” said Vikkilynne Rolfs, a director at the shelter who helped connect her co-workers at Open House Ministries with Griffin Peyton, the principal at Union.
Kelcey Burris, an AP biology teacher and girls’ soccer coach at Union, helped start the program — formally known as the UHS STEM Academy — eight years ago when his own daughter was in fifth grade.
“In the elementary level, I had noticed throughout the year the teachers are stretched for time. A lot of students would not get science included in their education,” Burris said. “We were trying to introduce a level of excitement for STEM for young students.”
Union teachers Shari Ridgeway and Adam Schmierer also helped found and oversee the program, which began in 2014. It started with four high school students working with a handful of students after school at Illahee Elementary School in Camas — teaching them lighthearted lessons and experiments. Burris helped get funding and materials from the district’s Career and Technical Education program to keep it going once a month.
Today, as many as 190 high school students volunteer as monthly teachers and tutors for more than 300 students at each of Union’s seven feeder schools, at both the elementary and middle school level.
“My daughter is a senior in high school now,” Burris said. “We have kids who participate with us now who were in elementary school when they started. They look back at it with a fondness.”
Students meet regularly to brainstorm ideas for fun experiments for young kids; the goal is to lead them to an interest in the sciences that otherwise might be glanced over at the K-5 level. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, they’ve pivoted to recording lessons to be viewed virtually, along with boxing up necessary materials and delivering them to schools for students to pick up or use on site.
Two sides of learning
Ina Ding, a senior at Union and key leader in the academy, has stayed with the program since she was a fifth-grader, like Burris’ daughter. Throughout the years, she’s seen more than just the program grow.
“I’ve watched a lot of 10-, 11-year-olds go from making slime to serving as leaders conducting bigger experiments,” she said. “It’s definitely made STEM fun for me; it reminds me that science can be fun. I wouldn’t say I’ve been inspired to pursue education, necessarily, but it’s definitely opened my eyes to leadership.
“It’s rewarding to see the program grow and then be run so successfully,” Ding added.
Beyond leading often silly experiments, getting involved in the academy has increased awareness for what teachers deal with on a daily basis.
“I never realized how hard it is to be an elementary teacher. You gain a lot of respect for the profession, you realize you’re taking it for granted,” said Chris Sanchez, a senior at Union. “You have to be the grown-up in a lot of situations; it’s really eye-opening.”
Sanchez got involved in the program during the pandemic as a tutor, specifically helping to work with Spanish-speaking students in the district’s English Language Learning program.
“Being a former ELL student, I understand what it’s like to come from a Spanish-speaking home. I know how difficult it can be to come to school where everyone’s speaking English,” Sanchez said. “It’s really helpful for a lot of students to have me or someone like me to help them ease the transition.”
Working with Open House Ministries
Volunteers on Monday helped groups of two to three young kids work through each step of their respective experiments, patiently reminding them to follow instructions and rewarding them for their final product.
Projects included Kao’s lava lamp — which proved to delight both students and volunteers alike upon its success — and an experiment that diluted the dye in sour Skittles to create a rainbow pattern. Others stations provided similarly entertaining and educational activities, such as creating edible slime, elephant toothpaste, mini volcanoes and homemade ice cream.
“The curriculum is pretty minimal,” Ding said, laughing and nodding to her fellow students frantically packing boxes with bags of Skittles and cooking oil ahead of Monday’s activities. “But the feeling is great. The kids have so much fun; it’s really just about getting them engaged in solving problems and critical thinking. It always feels like a mess, but it always ends up great.”
The STEM Academy will continue throughout the school year and is recruiting next year’s leadership among its nongraduating members.
“There’s nothing better than getting an email the next day from Mr. Burris or from a teacher or parent saying the lessons went really well,” Ding said. “For us, months go by so quickly, it feels like we’re constantly working on this. But for the young kids, they’re asking every day, ‘When is STEM day? When are the high-schoolers coming?’ ”