College STEM Students Offer Hands-On Mentoring

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College students from the New York Institute of Technology and staffers at a Harlem public school took professional development to a new level this fall when 23 NYIT students volunteered at the school.

With the goal of improving science education, the partnership with P.S. 241 included a little IT support, and the presence of older students who could share their enthusiasm and knowledge with the elementary school children.

Jim Martinez, professor of instructional technology at NYIT's school of education, said his program offers professional development to teachers at several New York City public schools, including P.S. 241. But this fall he decided to take an extra step by sending college students into the classrooms.

"There's only so much professional development you can do with teachers," he explained. "The idea here is to bring in science and engineering majors, students who are in the process of becoming those things, and bring them into the schools so the habits of the students are on display in front of the little ones, the elementary students."

"That's a great way for children to learn is to watch the people who have the skill set in practice," Martinez said.

There's a tremendous interest in STEM programs following an international survey that said U.S. students are lagging in math and science compared to students in other industrialized countries. The New York Times reports on the issue here. And a recent report finds blacks and Latinos, and low-income students, are less likely to attend schools that provide calculus classes and have good science labs. The report also found New York is among many states that spend less time on science now than in the 1990s.

Ellen Darensbourg, who coordinates the magnet program at P.S. 241, said the collaboration with NYIT students provided more experts in the school at no cost. "Often we have partnerships with museums and other cultural organizations that cost a lot of money that are much, much harder to sustain."

The college students and teachers from P.S. 241 presented highlights of their collaboration at a panel discussion on Monday. The kids clapped and laughed during a short video featuring interviews with their teachers, and photographs of their classwork.

Rhia Joseph, the only female college student on the panel, said it was rewarding to be able to go into classrooms. "It makes you feel like you're a role model for the kids."

Sophomore Renee Avalos, 19, was a member of the college media team that created the video about the project. He said he also helped out in a classroom science lesson. "We made canoes out of clay and we had to design them in a way that they would float and have bouancy," he explained. "We had to teach them that the perfect boat wouldn't have any leaks. It really challenged the kids to think like engineers."

A tech team of college students also repaired the P.S. 241 computers, set up smart boards and helped connect laptops to wireless printers.

Fifth graders Khanso Diawara and Keith Harris described a video research project that sent them to Central Park to search for the effects of weathering and erosion on rocks. They said they worked with a college student who taught them more tricks with iMovie.

"I like science because I want to be an astronaut," said Keith. "It's pretty easy for me and I'm interested and when you, like, become interested in it, that's when you can't stop and you continue working on it."

Khanso agreed, saying science is more engaging to her than other classes because it's hands-on. She said she wants to become a doctor.