Making science fun for children

University's Science Partners Program joins with Washoe County School District

5/19/2014 - By: Anne McMillin
Lemelson STEM Josh Khela works with Emiliano to identify rodent bones found in owl pellets at Lemelson STEM Academy this month. Photo by Anne McMillin, APR.

The University of Nevada, Reno biology major bends over the desk of a third grader and asks the child to identify the bones he has picked out of an owl pellet, using a handout describing types of rodent bones.

When the child asks "what is this one?" Josh Khela refers him back to the handout and asks him to look at the different drawings of bones and match the one in his tweezers to one of the drawings on the handout, telling the child he is a forensic scientist, like on TV's "CSI," who must figure it out himself.

Science made real. Science made fun. This is the goal of the University's Science Partners program, held in partnership with schools in the Washoe County School District where students are less likely to have outside science experiences.

Research shows that through traditional, lecture style teaching students only memorize facts with little or no understanding of the application or integration of scientific concepts. If hands-on activities and guided discussion are used to show how science works in daily life, children see science as a way of learning and thinking about the world around them, explained Gina Sella, coordinator for the Science Partners program with the University of Nevada School of Medicine's Office of Recruitment. Most importantly, they see science as fun. 

Science Partners is a three-credit undergraduate course for students in the College of Science and the College of Agriculture, Biotechnology and Natural Resources that requires a student commitment of seven to ten hours per week. The University student is paired with an elementary school teacher in the Washoe County School District and their class of up to 30 children for three hours per week to assist in teaching hands-on, inquiry-based science in the classroom.

Designed to help elementary school teachers address the challenges of inquiry-based science, the University Science Partners bring scientific knowledge, resources and enthusiasm about science, while the teachers provide pedagogical expertise. Together, this team links science to other subjects in math and language arts and shows children how to ask questions about their world.

At the Lemelson STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) Academy in Reno, Mary Antrim's third graders are building earthquake-proof "buildings" of blocks, placed on a book, with help from Science Partner Nicolette Rizzuto, a senior biology major. 

Antrim sees great value in having Rizzuto in her class. 

"She brings content knowledge and augments the class without being a 'teacher.' I wanted someone to come in whose life is science as opposed to another teacher like myself." 

Rizzuto keeps reminding the children to 'think of your building's base' as she encourages them to create structures that can withstand an earthquake, simulated by sliding the book around under their block building.

"I enjoy the creative side of planning these lessons and their spark of interest in science," said Rizzuto, who hopes to get into pediatric dentistry upon graduation this year. 

Julie Stoughton, lecturer in the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Science, says the Science Partners program benefits all involved.

"Our students learn more about science as they teach it and the children benefit from the hands-on experience," she said, adding that some undergraduate science students consider entering the education field as a career following their experiences with the Science Partners course.

The Science Partners course began in the late 1990s with grant funding as an independent study class and continued as such until this academic year when it transitioned to a formalized part of the curriculum at the University. The School of Medicine supports the program with a stipend to provide supplies and materials for classroom lessons in the elementary schools.


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