The AAAS STEM Volunteer Program provides a unique opportunity for professionals in the Washington, DC area to give back to their community by volunteering in local schools. This month, we spoke to teacher Harriett Hamlin and the volunteer she is partnered with, Carl Custer. Hamlin earned her master’s degree in elementary education and environmental science from Queens College while working as a New York City park ranger. She currently teaches seventh grade science at Takoma Park Middle School in Maryland. Custer is microbiologist who retired after a career in the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Question 1: Why do you think it’s important to get kids involved in science at a young age?
Hamlin: When I was a park ranger, we had a Junior Ranger program for the kids during the summer. I love the outdoors, and we did nature walks, field studies, and water testing. What I find is that children, before they get into school, love playing in the dirt or taking things apart. They can’t necessarily put them back together again, but they enjoy just seeing how things work. Children can absorb just so much information from what they're exposed to. For me, the best thing is to try to reach students at a very young age and continue to encourage that curiosity.
Custer: I remember a course in the eighth grade where the teacher was a World War II vet, and he was really great about explaining science. It made me want to delve in and learn more. I was fortunate in that I could read well and was advanced for my grade, and so I picked up on all that stuff. I enjoyed being a know-it-all, you know, and tell him the other kids around me about how things were made.
Question 2: What happens in a school with a STEM volunteer?
Custer: I began two years ago, and they wanted me to start off with motion and go on through biology, ecology, and other fields. That was fun. At the time I was working with third graders on Newton's three laws, and I made a lot of different implements to illustrate those. Now, for middle school, I've built mouse trap cars and things like that. We’ve made small catapults from kits and a large one from lumber. I showed the students how to saw, assemble the joints, apply screws, and use pilot holes. I also made another large catapult from a discarded a pallet to show the students the principles behind the instrument.
Hamlin: He brings all the different divisions of engineering and physical science to the classroom, and his own personal interest in how things work. He is just a bottle of energy, like the students, and is always pushing the limit by asking, “Well if we do it this way, what would happen? What if we do it that way?” It does raise the bar and Mr. Custer makes sure that the students not only are able to build or fix what they created, but also that they understand it.
Question 3: How do the students react when someone shows up to school with something like a catapult?
Custer: Oh, they thought it was cool. They wanted to use it to shoot balls down the hallway.
Hamlin: They are really ecstatic. They're very gung-ho and really work together as a team. Especially when we were making our table-sized catapult, it was literally all hands on deck. Everybody had an opportunity to help build. The students are very engaged and look forward to coming to our program.
Question 4: What are some of the challenges for this type of hands-on science program?
Hamlin: Our afterschool programs are open to all students in grades six, seven, and eight. So, they come with different levels of expertise or sometimes none at all. Some have never used the drills or a hot glue gun. Some have never thought about making a drawing and then actually building it. For them, it's learning a skillset that's not necessarily going to be taught in your science or math class.
Custer: It's tough being a teacher. There are kids in there that are really advanced, where their parents have done a lot of good work preparing them. And then there's the others who are sort of on their own and what they learned, they learned in school, not at home.
Question 5: Do you have any advice for volunteers in programs like this? How do you get the students interested?
Hamlin: I would suggest the AAAS scientist (or the contact in the AAAS Retired Scientist office) connect with the teacher to see what they are requesting in terms of assistance. For drumming up interest, there have been occasions where I have mouse trap cars running in the hallway between class periods. Student will ask, “What's that? What's that? What's that?” I let them know they should come see me if the want to learn how to make one. I give a personal invitation to some students. So those are the kind of introductory activities and promos that I do to encourage students to come by.
Custer: You have to give them information in very simple ways, and being visual is great. There’s a lot of good stuff out there on the Internet, and it's up to you to put it into a form they will understand. The teacher can guide you about their level of understanding and how much they can absorb. You know, I tried to teach my own kids and nieces and nephews the practical stuff, like how you change a tire. The practical stuff sort of leads back to science. It’s been rewarding.