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Huang Fellows Reflections

While developing their Science Kits for Kids, the Huang Fellows learn that knowing and communicating science are two very different skills. View Gallery On Facebook

Are You Smarter Than a 4th Grader?

I initially thought the science kit project was only going to take a few hours’ worth of thought and preparation. You only have to pass fourth grade to be a fourth-grade teacher, I used to think to myself when I was younger. Although it’s easy to know more information than you can teach, it takes a particular skill to translate that knowledge into a language that elementary school students can understand. In order to create our science kits, we had to learn a new form of dialogue and expression, a new way of communicating science.

Huang Fellows present their science kit to a panel of judges

Divided into four teams, we were tasked with demonstrating an objective from the North Carolina Science Curriculum through an original science kit. Limited to only five dollars per kit, our challenge was to create a kit for elementary school students that was not only engaging and effective in teaching the science principle, but also affordable and replicable in a classroom setting. Four teams pitted against each other—whose kit will come out on top?

Although each project varied in the end, I know that each group’s journey to get there followed a similar introspective path. For the first week of the project, we picked our science objective from the NC Public School Curriculum. After several hours of deliberation, with each team member passionate about their science topic, we came to an agreement. At first, I thought that we were just being stubborn group members by not compromising quickly, but I realized just how many factors we had to consider when picking the topic.

We had to consider the feasibility of building a science kit, affordability of the materials necessary, and originality of our idea. Huang Fellow, Claudia LaRose, recounts the difficulty in this challenge as she “could barely remember the specific class activities [she] had at that young of an age.” On top of all of this, we had to think about the last criteria on our rubric: engagement. In what ways does a fourth grader learn best? Visual learning, auditory learning, kinesthetic learning? These were the questions we had to ask ourselves continuously throughout the kit design process. What did my nine-year-old self like to do? What was my typical vocabulary at that age?

From the looks of our anxiously awaiting audience members, you would think we were actual fourth-grade teachers presenting to our students.

Bryan Rhee, a 2017 Huang Fellow, shares his science kit with 4th graders at Hillendale Elementary in Durham, NC

After three weeks of intense preparation—three weeks of altering our mindsets from those of rising sophomores in college to those of fourth graders—we stood in the North Building classroom, ready to present the kits in front of our accomplished judges and our peers. From the looks of our anxiously awaiting audience members, you would think we were actual fourth-grade teachers presenting to our students. All we were waiting for was the morning bell to signal the start of class.

With each group working from the same NC Curriculum and charged with the same task of teaching various science topics through inexpensive science kits, some overlap in execution might seem inevitable. There are only so many science topics you can teach at a fourth-grade level. Yet, the diversity in our presentations proved otherwise.

One group’s kit demonstrated energy transfer by making homemade ice cream, while another displayed oceanic diversity with a mason jar full of colored water and colorful fish. A third group’s kit recreated the television show Survivor, to show natural selection and a fourth created a mystery book around the properties of matter.

As I watched my peers assume the role of fourth-grade teachers, I couldn’t help but think about the difference between the simplicity of the science objective and the complexity of their personal science research conducted in each of our labs. One should be significantly more challenging than the other. This experience, however, taught me otherwise. It doesn’t matter if you are presenting on the pathways of neural stem cells or teaching about basic animal behavior. A presentation on college-level science research and a presentation on the fourth-grade science curriculum are one and the same: they are both forms of communication. They may look different superficially, but at the core of both objectives is communicating your science, translating your research question.

It is about understanding the audience and we have to ask the same question to get there—what perspective and background is my audience coming from? Regardless of what we used to think when we were younger, this skill is not automatically perfected after finishing fourth grade or even after finishing your first year of college. These are questions we must continue to ask no matter how far we continue with our research and how advanced our science becomes.

As I watched my peers assume the role of fourth-grade teachers, I couldn’t help but think about the difference between the simplicity of the science objective and the complexity of their personal science research conducted in each of our labs.

Yannet Daniel, Huang Fellow ’17

Yannet DanielYannet is a pre-med student with interests in global health and health policy. Through the Huang Fellows program she seeks to better understand the way medicine and culture interact and the way scientific research and society can equally impact and shape each other.