The question was straightforward, though atypical for the beginning of a science workshop: “What is your favorite candy?” the instructor asked.
Two of the children gave specific answers, but the third, not so much.
“I don’t really have a favorite candy,” the 11-year-old boy said. “I like all of the candies.”
What did this have to do with science? Nothing and everything. The instructors, two Illinois State juniors, had offered up the question to the three youthful participants as a way to break the ice. Then the instructors dove into a 90-minute lesson on gravity, forces, launch angles, and parabolas disguised as a step-by-step instructional on how to create a catapult using popsicle sticks, rubber bands, and other household supplies.
“If it’s not fun for them, (the children) don’t want to do it,” said workshop instructor Hannah Alperstein, who majors in physics education and minors in dance and psychology. “And they’re also not going to be motivated to continue to explore and have this curiosity for science. So if you have a workshop that’s just tedious and all mathematical and not fun at all, it’s going to do the opposite and actually discourage them from wanting to go into STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) because STEM, while it can be hard and it’s a lot of work and dedication, it’s also super fun and fulfilling.”
The catapult workshop was one of four free sessions held over Zoom last summer for middle school-age children in Central Illinois. Illinois State University’s Center for Mathematics, Science, and Technology (CeMaST) co-organized the series with the University of Illinois Extension Office.
The sessions were delivered by Illinois State University teacher education majors who are participating in the Noyce Scholarship program. About 15 4-H club members attended the workshops, which also covered chromatography, artificial intelligence and sustainable farming, and web coding.
The online workshops replaced CeMaST’s Discovery Academy. The weeklong science camp, normally held each summer at the extension’s Unity Community Center in Normal, had been canceled due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
The virtual science lessons did break up a tedious summer for children during the pandemic lockdown and offered them a look ahead at mathematics and science they may learn about in school. The sessions also provided the Illinois State students some of their first teaching opportunities.
“That was really fun and a nice opportunity to have,” Alperstein said. “And I thought it went pretty well. We definitely practiced beforehand. And I think that helped the flow of it.”
Alperstein co-led the catapult workshop with Leslie Reyes-Hernandez, a math education major and double minor in Spanish and Latin American and Latino/a studies, as part of their introductory internship as Noyce Scholars. The National Science Foundation program funds the training of secondary teachers in the STEM disciplines. Illinois State is coming to the end of a five-year grant that has supported 40 students. The scholarship recipients receive a $20,000 scholarship over their junior and senior years in return for committing to teach in an under-resourced community for at least four years after graduation.
The internship enables the students to dip their toes into teaching. They also apply theories they learn in a course taught by CeMaST Director Dr. Rebekka Darner.
Alperstein and Reyes-Hernandez patiently guided the three children through the process of creating catapults, encouraging them and answering questions along the way. A detailed explanation of the actual science behind this ancient technology didn’t come until the final 15 minutes of the workshop, and well after the students had fun propelling marshmallows through the air.
Darner, who observed the workshops, said it’s important for the lessons to be question driven and a journey for the participants. “What I try to get (the instructors) to do is think about teaching math and science and technology through inquiry, which means having some degree of exploration before there’s any explanation of broad principles or theories, so that when that explanation does come, the students have practical experience to reflect back on.”
Darner was impressed with how the aspiring teachers adapted to the online environment. “The pandemic has kind of forced us to rethink online learning and really take it seriously and give it our all you know because that’s really our only option right now,” Darner said.
Reyes-Hernandez thought the online teaching experience was valuable. “I really appreciate the fact that it was online, because of everything going on with classes going online. Since we are studying to be teachers, I think that really helps us. It’s preparing us in the correct path.”
Reyes-Hernandez and Alperstein are preparing to become high school teachers in math and physics, respectively. Once they are in the classroom, they are hoping to inspire their youthful female counterparts to enter STEM someday.
“I decided to go into the STEM fields because there aren’t that many women in the field. I like mathematics. So I just wanted to prove that we could all be mathematicians. It just takes patience and perseverance,” Reyes-Hernandez said.
Alperstein agreed: “I think there’s a sense that it’s self-fulfilling prophecy for females who just may feel like they’re not going to do as well in those STEM areas. So I think it is inspiring to have that female teacher to show you that you can do it regardless of your gender.”
The key for these future teachers will be to remember to show their students that science is an exploration—and fun.