On paper, the task appears simple: design, produce, and assemble 15 science kits that will serve as teaching tools for Durham school science teachers to enhance science skills of children of different ages. All we had to do was figure out an idea, come up with a list of materials, construct the kits, and, finally, present to the judges. As Duke students involved with science, all of the members of my team had lived and learned science throughout their educational career. With all of that history behind us, how difficult could it be to come up with an idea and follow through with it?
As it turns out, exceptionally difficult and quite time-consuming. Even with our first meeting, where we brainstormed ideas and put the basics of our plan on paper, we very quickly realized as the hours passed that this project would require more than just our scientific knowledge. We had to combine the skills and experiences of all the team members. For 99 percent of our lives, we had been the learners; now, we had to think like teachers working in the setting of an elementary school located in Durham, North Carolina, and we soon understood that all of our separate ideas, concerns, and opinions had to be brought to the table in order to create a kit worthy of being presented.
For example, our particular team’s project was based around natural selection, and we ended up using pink and white jelly beans to simulate prey in a white background composed of lima beans. Acting as predators, the students had to find as many jelly beans as possible. Naturally, more pink jelly beans would be “caught” since the white jelly beans were better adapted to that particular background. In the intermediate stages of creating our project, we had actually been planning to use white and black beans as our prey. As college students, and more significantly, as people who come from privileged backgrounds, we did not recognize any potential problems until Jason Zhang, a member of our team, raised a concern that he had learned from his experiences volunteering as a student teacher in community schools around Durham. Though the specific colors of the beans had no significance to us other than their roles in the game, it was brought to our attention that kids could view them in racial terms, and we quickly changed the details of our project to eliminate that possibility.
We continued to draw upon our interdisciplinary skill sets as we neared the end of the project, working on our worksheets and presentations themselves. After having gone through years of education––though we will, of course, be going through many many more––we have become used to small fonts, little to no pictures, and paragraphs littered with confusing jargon. While creating our packet of instructions and questions to help the elementary students think, we realized we instead had to be conscious of a more restricted, straightforward vocabulary and the limitations of a child’s mind, prone to distractions and boredom.
In this stage, we drew upon worksheets from our own elementary school pasts and lesson plans from years ago that continued to stick in our minds, and we each contributed these separate backgrounds to create a coherent activity specially designed for fourth graders. Everything from word choice to font size, from the inventive title to the small bean illustration that our member, Felicia Guo, drew were intentionally chosen and placed to either guide the children’s learning or extend their entertainment, just as we had experienced in the past.
Of course, our science kits were not perfect. On the day of the presentations, all of the teams had to confront some of our problems when we were questioned by the judges. Despite those small obstacles, however, it was amazing to see the work all of the Huang Fellows had invested into the science kits. The lessons were well-taught, the projects original, and the demonstrations compelling. Above all, it was clear that the members of each team had worked together, incorporating all of our abilities and understandings to create diverse proposals. Interestingly, even our methods of presenting drew from different ways of thinking; one group used a PowerPoint, others simply presented their packets of paper, and another group especially enhanced engagement in their science kit by performing a live version of the board game they had created.
Science is about collaboration. Within a research lab, for example, scientists work together with their lab members, with collaborators across the country and across the world, and, on an even wider scale, with the data that scientists of the past have contributed. It has become so easy to dismiss the significance of collaboration when individualism has become such a critical theme in our lives today, but the Science Kit project opened our eyes to what is possible by working with others.
Though we are years past elementary school, though we are hundreds of lessons away from the concepts we presented that day, this project is important on multiple levels. We so often focus on our own responsibilities, our own reputations, our own knowledge, and our own problems that we do not stop to consider others’ opinions or appreciate the help we have previously received from others. We have individualistic mindsets, and I can’t even count the number of times I’ve heard the words, “Group projects? Ugh, I hated them.” What the Science Kit project taught us, however, is that combining the skill sets of multiple members can elevate the end result. And, most importantly, I loved being able to express my passion for science for kids who may just be beginning to develop that same enthusiasm.
Michelle is pursuing a double major in biology and computer science. As a Huang Fellow, she is excited to explore the human-focused side of science.