For more than 42 years, Manhattan High School in Manhattan, Kansas, has offered the Wide Horizons Nature Program, a science course in which high school students “work with a partner to put together a [30-minute] educational program [and] teach [it] at local elementary [schools] and preschools,” says science teacher Leslie Campbell, who has taught it for five years. Wide Horizons students “report to my classroom to pick up supplies, then drive out to the schools to present. The goal is to do it all within a normal class hour,” Campbell explains.
“It has grown to be two classes per day (36 students enrolled between the two this year). They present 2–3 times per week on their subject,” she reports, adding, “I make sure their science instruction will enhance elementary school classes.”
The course has no set curriculum. In 1974, biology teacher Gary Ward designed it “as a flexible course for juniors and seniors to pursue their [individual] nature study interests,” says retired biology teacher Tish Simpson, who taught Wide Horizons from 1994 to 2011. Prerequisites include teacher recommendation, science interest, commitment to a year-long class, good character, reliability, and responsibility—“not necessarily their academic performance,” she notes. Students need to have completed required lab science credits or “be taking them simultaneously” because Wide Horizons is an elective, she adds. They also need to have “some form of transportation to the elementary schools.”
Campbell also relies on student recommendations because peers typically are knowledgeable about students’ attitudes and social skills when “dealing with younger students, teachers, and administrators,” she relates. After checking with guidance counselors and other teachers, she issues invitations to students interested in taking the course.
Students choose presentation topics based on their interests, with the caveat that the topic must be interesting to elementary students. Many use live animals as props in their presentations. “The animals are used as examples; [one] example this year is how geckos are adapted for their environment. The presentation is about conditions in different biomes; the team presents information on different geckos, and then brings out their own to demonstrate,” says Campbell.
Sometimes the animal “is a personal pet, but [students] have purchased their own or even borrowed [them] from friends. The chinchillas in the program this year were adopted by one of my students,” she notes.
“Once a team has been assigned to an animal, they are in charge of [its] care,” including taking animals home on long weekends and holidays, says Campbell. She adheres to Kansas guidelines on animals in the classroom when instructing her students.
“The first thing that each team has to do is to learn as much as they can about their animal, about how it lives in the wild and how to take care of it as a pet. The last thing students share in their presentations is all about having the animal as a pet: the cost and care involved and being a responsible pet owner,” Campbell explains.
“We go over what to do if [elementary] students are scared or hesitant about the animal. We have never had a student so scared that [he or she] cannot be in the same room, but we have had some [who] don’t want the animal near them. If that is the case, my students station themselves at the opposite side of the room with the animal and the [elementary students] come to them…The animal is in a carrier and out of sight until the end of the presentation,” says Campbell, and some animals are not removed from their carriers.
“I have only had one student [who] had to change to another class because [of the animals] in my classroom…I have had [Wide Horizons] students [who had] allergies (to the rabbit, for example), but they are fine as long as there is no contact. At the elementary schools,…[teachers] choose which presentations they want and will not book ones [involving animals students are allergic to],” she explains.
Simpson notes that Wide Horizons teachers “are insured under the school system’s policy” in case of any mishaps.
“I have had [staff] from the local zoo come to our class and share how they handle animal demonstrations. We also share stories from previous students. At the end of the school year, the teams write reflections that are useful for instructing the next year’s teams,” says Campbell. Students are graded based on elementary teachers’ rubrics and feedback, as well as on their final project for the class.
Wide Horizons began with a live animal focus, but during her tenure, Simpson needed to change the course to help elementary teachers meet “state science standards and benchmarks” and No Child Left Behind mandates, she explains. These changes included encouraging students “to research any literature involving their topic” and suggesting the younger students read it and presenting on other topics in biology and on chemistry, physics, and Earth science topics, she relates, adding, “To a little third-grade girl, seeing an older girl do chemistry and physics makes her think, ‘I can do that, too.’”
The high school students “grow so much in their presentation skills and confidence,” says Campbell, and “it’s not uncommon for them to go into teaching.”
In Cumming, Georgia, Coal Mountain Elementary School and North Forsyth High School are partnering to stage Family Science and Engineering Nights at local elementary schools. The high school students serve as Science Ambassadors and hold family nights at 4–6 area schools annually. “We are now in [our] fourth year,” says Denise Webb, K–5 science and engineering teacher at Coal Mountain, who started the program with Donna Governor, a former North Forsyth science teacher (now assistant professor of science at University of North Georgia), and current co-facilitator and North Forsyth science teacher Charlotte Stevens.
Funding for Science Ambassadors comes from local business partners, and “we charge a small fee for supplies to the elementary schools, which [parent-teacher organizations] help pay,” she notes. “We wanted to make [the program] free to the elementary students and their families.”
Science Ambassadors’ mission “is for all [preK–5 students] and their families to engage in science and engineering activities that have real-world connections to develop [skills in]critical-thinking and problem-solving. Our goal is to inspire more students with the confidence to pursue careers in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields,” Webb explains. The elementary schools “are rural schools and need exposure to possible future careers that [students]otherwise may not be aware of…This program [also] provides high school role models of varied ethnicity and genders for the elementary students,” she points out.
“A second goal is for the [Science Ambassadors] to gain leadership skills and [develop] confidence in the science and engineering [skills] that can lead to careers in STEM,” she adds.
The Science Ambassador program is open to all North Forsyth High School students. “We have [advanced placement] students, special-needs students, and those who have no other niche and need service hours” among the Ambassadors, she reports. Candidates must have passing grades in their classes, a recommendation from a teacher, and no discipline referrals.
Those chosen for the program create science and engineering activities for stations they will run for elementary students on family nights. “I work with them on questioning skills and understanding the engineering design process,” Webb explains. “I give them science activities that match elementary standards.” Safety precautions are thoroughly covered in the practice sessions, she emphasizes.
Ambassadors must provide a list of supplies they will need for the next family night. “They have to follow through and learn to be prepared and thorough,” Webb maintains. She and Stevens take the Ambassadors to the elementary schools, but Ambassadors “are responsible for cleanup and a ride home,” she explains.
They also “design a brochure that explains all the science and engineering activities that were offered, steps to repeat them at home, and the science or engineering practices connected with the activity,” she relates. Local businesses can buy ads in the brochure.
The program reached more than 2,000 people last year because “students from other grade levels and schools” accompanied their families to the events, says Webb.
As a result of their efforts, “the Science Ambassadors have gained confidence in themselves. They have learned leadership skills, and their teachers [say] that…they are more engaged and motivated in their classes,” she reports. Representatives from the business partners have noted the Ambassadors’ prowess in “21st-century workforce skills like teamwork and communication,” she adds.
“Parents have told us that they are surprised at how well their elementary- aged child did in the science and engineering activities and plan to continue to look for ways to encourage them in STEM. They also commented on the professionalism and patience the high students showed their families. These are great qualities [Ambassadors] will [have] as they enter the workforce. [Parents] all overwhelmingly want us to come back again,” says Webb.
“We are helping other schools in our county start their own elementary/high school partnerships with similar programs because we cannot take on any more schools, and many more want to participate. We have also presented this program during [state and national education conferences] to assist others in getting this partnership started in their own districts,” she relates.
Science After School
“Youth teaching youth is [what’s special about] our organization,” says Jessica Yang, founder and chair of Kids Are Scientists Too (KAST; see http://kidsarescientiststoo.org), a nonprofit program in which high school and college students offer free hands-on science programming after school to elementary schools in Illinois, Washington, North Carolina, Maryland, Virginia, New York, New Jersey, Utah, and Ontario, Canada.Yang founded KAST because as high school students, she and CEO Jessica Sun wanted to “offer an enrichment program to make science learning experiences even better for students,” Yang explains.
Yang learned how through a year-long fellowship at LearnServe International, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit that helps high school students start social change programs. She received a $1,000 grant to start the business with support from LearnServe and Youth Venture. She also won $500 in a George Washington University business pitch competition. With these resources, Yang founded KAST Maryland in 2010. Sun established KAST Virginia soon afterward.
Yang, Sun, and other KAST volunteers created a series of one-hour lesson plans for fourth and fifth graders featuring “fun, interactive activities to get students excited about science,” says Sun. They used their “unique perspective as high school and college students,” their “studies in science in college,” and their “experiences working with kids” to create seven units with more than 60 lesson plans on various science topics, she relates.
The lessons were inspired by elementary and middle school curricula and “science experiments we’ve done in the past,” says Yang. During KAST’s pilot phase, “we received feedback from teachers [that] helped us ensure their quality.”
Since KAST volunteers usually teach students with a classroom teacher present, safety is ensured. “We have one KAST volunteer for every five elementary students, which helps us maintain a safe learning environment,” say Yang and Sun. KAST alumni—those who have graduated high school—serve as mentors to high school or college students who are new to the program.
Typically, “a high school student or teacher will reach out, and we’ll meet with [him or her] and [provide] all the materials needed to connect with schools and start a KAST program,” they explain. “We wanted the program to be free of charge to make it accessible to students from low-income families.”
In return for their service, KAST volunteers gain experience in leadership, organizing, recruiting, and public speaking, along with the satisfaction of “giving back to their community,” they conclude. “It is inspiring to see…some of the younger students [become] excited about science.”
This article originally appeared in the February 2017 issue of NSTA Reports, the member newspaper of the National Science Teachers Association. Each month, NSTA members receive NSTA Reports, featuring news on science education, the association, and more. Not a member? Learn how NSTA can help you become the best science teacher you can be.
The mission of NSTA is to promote excellence and innovation in science teaching and learning for all.