To say Cathy Cullen’s “lab” in Building 427 is nontraditional would be a bit of an understatement.
Instead of pipettes, there are pipe cleaners. The chemical reactants are baking soda and lemon juice. And the “animal” is a blue plastic robotic mouse.
Cullen’s operation is the epicenter of Education Outreach Services in the Office of Scientific Operations for NCI at Frederick. She is tasked with bringing extracurricular science to young people in Frederick County Public Schools and organizations such as the Boys & Girls Club of Frederick County and the Housing Authority of the City of Frederick.
“We put together hands-on lessons that lead to a lot of self-discovery,” Cullen says.
Each week, she works with her two Werner H. Kirsten student interns, Madison Lancaster and Gabriel Brewster, to create science lessons and experiments for students in kindergarten through eighth grade that Cullen hopes will spark curiosity and enthusiasm. Their efforts are focused on disadvantaged students Brewster believes should be given a “fair share” at discovering science.
Brewster is a senior at Thomas Johnson High School in Frederick and well aware of the challenges facing teachers who want to make science fun and exciting.
“My mom is an elementary school teacher. I know that teachers don’t have time in the curriculum to do a lot of hands-on science,” he says. That’s why helping kids discover the “a-ha” moments that science experiments create is especially meaningful to him.
Brewster and Lancaster have worked with students at Monocacy Elementary School to help them identify areas of scientific interest and translate those interests into science fair projects.
“We started with themes like chemical reactions or separating mixtures,” Brewster says. “Then we broke into four groups of two to three kids to help them develop a science fair project. When we were done, we had a Science Showcase night so their parents could come in and see what they had been doing.”
Monocacy Elementary Vice Principal Laura Gilmore says the feedback from students and parents has been phenomenal. “I can’t tell you how many parents have told us great things about the program,” she says. “And the kids absolutely loved it.”
Going the Extra Mile
Although their WHK internships only require 15 hours a week, Lancaster and Brewster often put in more than that, says Cullen, including after school or on weeknights.
One night in February, the Housing Authority of the City of Frederick organized a Science Night for children at Lucas Village. When one little boy arrived late, he started to cry when he realized he had missed one of the experiments. “We stayed after to make sure we could repeat it with him,” Lancaster recalls.
That willingness to put in the extra time is just one of the reasons that Cindy Powell, youth education coordinator for the Housing Authority of the City of Frederick, has the highest praise for Brewster and Lancaster.
“I am absolutely thrilled to have them interact with our kids,” she says. “Gabe and Maddie are clearly interested in them, they are interested in science, and they explain things very well.”
Cullen’s student interns have learned that although they are working with elementary-aged students, they can’t take anything for granted. “I always have to be on my game with them,” says Lancaster, a senior at Walkersville High School who plans to attend Virginia Tech to study agriculture science with a minor in integrative health. “This experience has really taught me to be organized. I never had a calendar until now, but now I need it!”
That’s because Lancaster and Brewster are always planning ahead: creating lessons, building experiments, and “always making sure we have a back-up plan,” Brewster adds. “But it keeps getting easier. We’re always trying different things, but now we’ve got about 10 experiments that we know are really popular.”
These include secret messages (which illustrate the light spectrum) and balancing birds (to demonstrate concepts such as aerodynamics and air flow.) They also created an experiment that challenges students to find ways to separate cancer “cells” (lima beans) from healthy “cells” (pinto beans.)
As she prepares to study complicated scientific concepts in college, Lancaster says she hopes she will remember what these experiments demonstrate. “There is value in going back to basic, tangible things to try to relate them to other, more difficult concepts,” she says.
For Brewster, who hopes to attend Yale University or the University of California at San Diego, the WHK internship has taught him important life lessons. “I love science, but I don’t envision myself in a lab. I am a social person and tend to be more interested in physics and calculus, so I’m leaning toward something more like engineering,” he says. “I’ve also learned that although I’m pretty good at teaching my peers, this has challenged me to convey my big thoughts with small ideas.”
Whether sparking curiosity in someone who usually says “I don’t like science at all” or sharing their time and talents with students who otherwise wouldn’t have the chance to try hands-on experiments, Cullen’s WHK interns say the experience will stay with them forever. For the children they work with, the feelings are mutual.
“The kids keep asking, ‘When are we doing this again,’” says the Housing Authority’s Powell. “We can’t keep them away.”
The Elementary Outreach Program enables elementary school students to receive supplemental science training through hands-on experiences. To learn more about the program and training opportunities, please send an email to email@example.com.