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Students offer science lessons to elementary classes

A group of University students is spreading the message of science to local elementary-school pupils.

BU Science was established six years ago by a pair of bioengineering students who were interested in an education-related senior design project, said Ken McLeod, bioengineering professor and program adviser. The students assisted in George F. Johnson Elementary School in the Union-Endicott Central School District, where McLeod’s wife, Suzanne, is superintendent.

The program has grown in size each year and now features 60 students with majors such as engineering, psychology, biology, chemistry, physics and theatre.

“This has grown beyond my imagination,” Ken McLeod said. “The teachers seem to really love the idea of getting our young people in there. The students like the opportunity to teach.”

One of those students is Kristie Shirreffs, a 2009 graduate in bioengineering from Massapequa who is now in the MBA program. Shirreffs started with BU Science in the fall of 2006 and took over as co-leader a year later. One of her first decisions was to expand the club beyond bioengineering.

“I felt like there were a lot of teachers who would be interested in this within the school, so why not open it up to all engineering?” she said.

BU Science members generally work with 12 teachers in grades K-5 at George F. Johnson. Four students will work in a classroom once a week for 30 minutes. Shirreffs has always worked with first-grade teacher Sonja Lowe, while co-leader Christine Elliott works with kindergartners. This year’s classroom work starts the week of Oct. 19, Shirreffs said.

Lessons include biology, chemistry, fractals, non-verbal communication such as body and sign language, and basic computer programming.

Being able to interact and communicate with young children is vital for club members, Shirreffs said.

“We always say to our (members), ‘If you can explain it to a first-grader, you can explain it to anyone,’” said Shirreffs, who added that the club goes over lessons “step by step” with its members to prepare them for the classroom.

McLeod also stressed the importance of learning through teaching.

“The students who are participating in this program and are trying to explain the concepts to young people really develop a deep understanding of the concepts,” he said. “To teach someone, you have to know what you’re talking about. You can’t bluff — and you learn that quickly.”

The elementary students are excited to see the club members help in the classroom, Lowe said.

“They idolize the (Binghamton) students when they come in,” Lowe said. “Of course, we say they are working with real scientists. They’re so engaged and so ready to learn. … They are learning from experts.”
BU Science’s goal for this year is to expand into another elementary school.

“We have so many volunteers that we’re running out of teachers,” Shirreffs said.
McLeod would like to see entrepreneurship highlighted in future lessons.

“Kids usually decide by middle school what they can and can’t do,” he said. “Kids too often are raised as, ‘You’re going to grow up and get a job.’ Nobody tells them, ‘You’re not supposed to grow up and get a job. You are supposed to grow up and create a job.’ They never hear that.

“The entrepreneurial spirit of 100 years ago is gone now. That’s what we are trying to resurrect in bioengineering.”

BU Science has an additional benefit beyond the classroom lessons, Shirreffs said.

“It helps the (elementary) students learn about college early and to start thinking about Binghamton University,” said Shirreffs, who expects to hand over the club reins to a younger member next year as she pursues her doctorate. “We’re getting our name out there and we’re prepping them to be ready for us.

“There has been so much positive feedback from teachers and I’m glad other teachers will be able to experience it with their students.”

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Last Updated: 10/14/08