Baker University’s annual interterm period finds some students traveling to locales such as Costa Rica and Spain to immerse themselves in another culture while studying history and language. This year’s interterm—which took place during the first three weeks of January—added a new opportunity closer to home: leading science labs on the Baldwin City campus for 565 visiting fifth-grade students.
“I worked in a similar program with [emeritus professor of chemistry Dr. Gary Giachino] and loved how the fifth graders reacted to having the lab exposure,” said Molly Anderson, assistant professor of chemistry and the coordinator of the program. I loved the experience as a college student and wanted to provide that for current Baker students, as well as have a connection with the community. So I used the main idea of having the fifth-grade classes come to Baker for a science program, but redesigned the day and made an interterm experience out of it.”
After holding a one-day pilot of the program during interterm 2017, Anderson built a more complete experience that allowed more fifth graders to spend a day in Baker’s labs to conduct experiments. In the chemistry lab, fifth graders paired with Baker chemistry and biochemistry majors to learn techniques such as titration, phase separation, and molecule affinity using kitchen items. They also recorded the data. Partnering with other Baker students, fifth graders learned how to use microscopes and how to identify plant and animal cells in the biology lab, which also included the elementary schoolers making slides using swabs of their own cheek cells. In the physics lab, the students learned how different shapes affect structural integrity by working in groups led by Baker physics majors to design and build two separate structures: one built for strength and the other built for height.
“After some guidance and training, I had the Baker students design their own experiments and the worksheets to go with these experiments,” Anderson said. “Then we evaluated the success of the experiments each day to make decisions about how well the fifth graders were handling the tasks and enjoying themselves.”
Teachers and students from elementary schools in Baldwin City, DeSoto, Eudora, and Olathe were among the visiting participants. Baker students enrolled in this interterm course earned credit while also serving local schools.
“I took this interterm because I wanted to give a little bit back to the community because of all that Baker has done for me,” senior Thomas Irick said. “It was cool to be able to give these kids the exposure to some in-depth science that they aren’t used to.”
Several other Baker students echoed Irick’s sentiments, and junior Alison Prather expressed a more personal connection to the subject matter being studied.
“Especially as a science major, it’s kind of easy to forget why we fell in with the field,” Prather said. “This fifth-grade STEM camp refreshes my passion and reminds me why I love to do this.”
Junior Allyson Hertig and senior Shannel Rosello-Williams both mentioned their excitement in helping children engage with science early, which was one of Anderson’s goals when designing the STEM interterm. Describing the program as a “win-win” for everyone involved, Anderson said that adults sometimes struggle to remember the feeling of “wonder” that young people experience when discovering new ideas and that she hopes these labs have allowed the fifth graders to make memories associated with that wonder to give them a more positive outlook on science.
Much to Anderson’s delight, the community connection and opportunity to encourage children’s academic interests was not lost on the Baker students.
“I enjoy being with kids, so I decided to do this STEM camp because it would give me the opportunity to teach them new things and new experiences,” said freshman Jack Mills. “My favorite part is being able to see them create their own things and think for themselves.”
With a little luck, the children’s curiosity will stay with them for the rest of their lives—or at least until 2025, when they will enter college and some of them will inevitably choose to study in the STEM field.