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GSK Science in the Summer Pivots to Hands-On Learning at Home

Two children conduct a science experiment
Children who take part in Science in the Summer this year will conduct a chemistry experiment at home with the bright blue petals of butterfly pea flowers. | Paansaeng/Adobe Stock

On a hot July morning, Bryan Goehring has set up an assembly line outside of Maryland’s Takoma Park Middle School, where he teaches seventh grade science and eighth grade leadership.

Normally, Goehring would be guiding elementary and middle school students through chemistry experiments as a longtime volunteer with GSK Science in the Summer, a free, hands-on summer enrichment program administered in the Washington, D.C., area by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

With many of the libraries and community centers that traditionally host the program shuttered in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Goehring, other volunteers and program leaders have found a way to safely get elementary and middle school students involved in science this summer: by assembling hundreds of chemistry kits to enable children to conduct experiments at home.

Goehring was assisted by more than a dozen of his own students, who chatted behind face masks as they busily measured out the components of the kits, which will be given to younger children.

The kits include supplies for four chemistry experiments, including utensils for stirring substances into water to create an Alka-Seltzer-like product. Children will also get to test out several different recipes for slime and crush colorful organic materials – shells of cochineal insects and butterfly pea flowers – to create paint.

“The past few days and today we’ve basically been filling bags full of science materials: corn starch, baking soda, potting soil, borax, sugar,” said Giorgia, a rising eighth grader at Takoma Park Middle School.

These supplies will be used for the fourth experiment, in which children add an array of different materials to a glass of water to contaminate it. They then create their own water testing and filtration system to remove the contaminants.

The year’s curriculum is the latest in a long line of hands-on programming from GSK Science in the Summer that seeks to capture the imagination of children on different scientific topics such as the science of the human body, the science of space and the science of sports, said Betty Calinger, senior project director at AAAS. Curricula are created by the Franklin Institute, the science museum in Philadelphia that has also developed this year’s take-home chemistry kit.

GSK Science in the Summer was founded more than 30 years ago in the Philadelphia area by pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline, which continues to sponsor the program. After AAAS helped usher in a national program in 2015, it now exists in 20 states and Washington, D.C., and aims to reach second through sixth graders, particularly in underserved areas.

Science in the Summer specifically aims to address the documented issue of “summer slide” – the loss of skills and knowledge over long summer breaks, Calinger noted. The need for additional summer enrichment is particularly acute this year, as the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered schools this spring and forced teachers to scrap their hands-on labs and adapt their lessons to the limitations of virtual learning.

“These kits are going to allow kids to explore a bit on their own,” said Goehring. “You learn most by hands-on experience.”

Goehring has added photos and optional videos to the Science in the Summer instructions to make them more easily understandable by a wider range of students, including younger children, children struggling with science literacy and those who are not assisted by a parent.

Creating an opportunity for D.C.-area participants in Science in the Summer would not be possible without the student volunteers lending a hand in building the kits, Goehring said. They are members of the Difference Makers, a student-run service organization at Takoma Park Middle School. The group, founded by Goehring’s students a decade ago, is now a registered nonprofit with more than 300 members, who usually assist as he teaches Science in the Summer sessions. At the beginning of the summer, the middle schoolers help out by distributing supplies to the younger children as Goehring leads the class, but by the end of the summer, the Difference Makers are practically running the class themselves, he said.

The Difference Makers like taking part, even if they do not get to help in the same way this year. Goehring said he had to turn away volunteers for assembling the kits to stay compliant with social-distancing practices.

“It’s a lot of fun. You make new friends, and it just feels good helping people out,” said eighth-grader Giorgia, who plans to join Difference Makers this coming year.

Said Calinger, “The student volunteers are impressive! They are learning how to be leaders and will be able to use those skills throughout their lives.”

Volunteers are not the only ones returning each year to Science in the Summer. Calinger has received emails from parents whose children have participated in Science in the Summer in previous years asking about how they can take part this summer.

“It’s starting to establish a reputation,” said Calinger.

Before the week was up, Goehring and the Difference Makers had assembled 400 kits ready to be distributed to new and existing Science in the Summer community partners in the Washington, D.C., area, Calinger said.

Library partners in Maryland’s Caroline County and Talbot County, for instance, will be offering curbside pickup to families who register ahead of time. The Laurel Historical Society in Maryland will also distribute kits, and the volunteer who usually teaches Science in the Summer there will instead meet with children via Zoom, Calinger noted. Some kits will go to in-person camps run by the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Washington, the City of Gaithersburg and Montgomery County, she added.

Volunteers are also getting the word out in new ways this year. Their science kit assembly line drew attention from passersby, so Goehring and his students took the opportunity to promote Science in the Summer to interested families. They are also promoting Science in the Summer during other service activities, sharing details with families who arrived at their weekly food distribution event with young children in tow.

For more information about Science in the Summer, including how to participate, visit the AAAS website for the Washington, D.C., area and the GSK website for other locations nationwide.