UA students teach science after school

Tara Massouleh

At Matthews Elementary, “elephant toothpaste,” a thick foam caused by the breakdown of hydrogen peroxide into water and oxygen, is helping bring together college students and elementary school students through the Discovery Buddies program – all in the name of science.

Every Monday and Tuesday, 45 University of Alabama undergraduate students pair up with elementary school students and lead hands-on science experiments for Matthews’ after-school program.

Monica Brint, a junior majoring in biology, said she came up with the idea to start Discovery Buddies while volunteering at Matthews as a ballet teacher during her sophomore year.

“I was talking to some of the students there, and they thought it was really cool that I wanted to be a doctor,” she said. “They didn’t know anyone else who worked in science, and I think it’s important for them to know that it’s an option. I think that’s what Discovery Buddies does; it gives them that option.”

Brint said she took her initial idea of connecting pre-med students with students at Matthews to the school’s after-school coordinator as well as the University’s Alpha Epsilon Delta Pre-Health Honor Society and was met with enthusiasm on both ends.

The program is funded by Tuscaloosa’s One Place, a nonprofit organization that works with many Tuscaloosa elementary schools and also sponsors the Al’s Pals program, which pairs elementary school students with college mentors in a similar fashion.

In working with Tuscaloosa’s One Place, the Discovery Buddies program fulfills part of the grant requirement to emphasize science in Matthews’ after-school program. Brint said Discovery Buddies supports the push for science programs in schools like Matthews that lack resources and also helps students to view science in a more positive light.

“I think Discovery Buddies can reiterate what they are already learning in class, and also help get them interested in science by showing them that it can be cool and fun and that it’s not just memorizing facts,” Brint said.

Lauren Hackworth, a sophomore majoring in geology who volunteers as a student leader for Discovery Buddies, said she thinks the program is helping students to appreciate science in ways that they otherwise might not in a traditional classroom setting.

“The fact that they aren’t tested on the material we teach gives them the chance to not worry so much about the information but instead just enjoy and understand the experiments,” she said.

While the students at Matthews certainly benefit from having positive role models who help them to increase their knowledge and understanding of science, the Discovery Buddies college mentors stand to gain just as much from the program.

Through Discovery Buddies, college students who hope to work in the science field develop the ability to effectively explain simple scientific concepts and also gain experience working with the greater Tuscaloosa community to broaden their perspectives on the world.

Andrew Davis, a sophomore majoring in geology and one of Discovery Buddies’ student leaders, said seeing the amazement in the eyes of the second-graders after the elephant toothpaste experiment was priceless and rewarding beyond anything he had experienced before.

“I can confidently say that after every experiment the entire second grade class has chimed in saying that they loved the experiment and can’t wait for next week,” he said. “It’s those little things that make it worthwhile. When a second grader excitedly runs up to you in the hallway and asks ‘are we doing science today?’ Nothing can beat that feeling.”

In just one semester, students at Matthews have already gotten the chance to get their hands dirty making silly putty, elephant toothpaste and models of the human heart. As the program is going into its second semester, Brint hopes to expand Discovery Buddies to more elementary schools and get more UA students from different majors involved. Discovery Buddies is currently accepting applications for new mentors.

Stephen Secor, associate professor in the biology department and Discovery Buddies’ faculty advisor, said his interest in biology at an early age has come to influence how he views the natural world. He said he feels it is crucial that children learn about science at an early age through programs like Discovery Buddies so they will continue to recognize the importance of science later in life.

Secor said he hopes Discovery Buddies will serve as a model for UA students to venture into the community to help improve the educational experiences of younger students.

“For both the college students and the students at Matthews, this can be a life-changing experience as UA students may now consider careers in teaching and spark for the elementary students a life-long passion for science,” he said.