From Water Bottles to Lava Lamps: TJHSST Students Lead Girls from Nearby Elementary School in Science Exploration
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In Room 52 at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, students are now running the show. The classroom has been taken over by a group of female students who are leading elementary school girls in a hands-on science experiment that starts with empty plastic water bottles and ends with every student creating their own personal “lava lamp.”
The Women Interested in Science and Engineering, or WISE, club members at TJHSST host a group of roughly 20 girls from nearby Weyanoke Elementary School each Friday, with the goal of encouraging more young women to consider STEM studies and careers. Each week, the older students lead the Weyanoke fifth-graders in hands-on science projects, promoting critical thinking and problem solving, while developing friendships along the way.
“The biggest hits have been the things they can bring home – like making slime, invisible ink or slingshot rockets – or projects that involve a competition, building the tallest or strongest structure,” says WISE club president Sydney Belt, a senior at TJHSST. The high school students do research on engaging experiments, ensure they have the necessary supplies, and write lesson plans, including prepping for question and answer sessions to ensure the younger girls understand the science behind the work. “If you put yeast in a bottle and a balloon on top and the balloon expands, we want them to think about what is happening and why it is happening,” TJHSST senior Joanna Cheng says. Group leaders hope to inspire curiosity, she says, regardless of whether the younger girls ultimately pursue STEM careers. “We design questions to go along with experiments to get them to think things through,” Joanna says. “They will be successful in whatever they do if they approach life with that kind of outlook.”
The older girls are also learning – especially about what it’s like to be a teacher who has to adapt plans on the fly. The group recalls asking the Weyanoke girls to bring empty water bottles to school for a project, but not having enough younger students remember to do so. “We went around frantically collecting them from recycling bins and it all worked out,” Vani Gupta, a TJHSST junior and WISE club officer, says. “Sometimes things go wrong and everything doesn’t always work out as planned.” Robin Taylor, who teaches AP Chemistry at TJHSST and has been the club’s advisor for the past 13 years, says the high school girls have also grown into their role since she began serving as club sponsor in 2009. “At first they expected us to do everything,” Taylor said. “I said it is time for a change in paradigm: this is your class to run. Every year the girls get more and more independent, more self-sufficient.” She notes the WISE club officers ensured their group continued to meet throughout the pandemic, even when school was virtual. They connected with the younger students online in breakout rooms and collaborated with Weyanoke leaders to have science project supplies delivered to younger girls via the same system that dropped library books off to kids at bus stops. “It's not just science, it is friendship, mentorship,” Taylor said.
Weyanoke fifth-grader Ruth Getahun says the program has led to her thinking about her own future, maybe even applying to TJHSST herself one day. “I can be myself here, try new opportunities and find the answers to things,” Getahun says.
Vani Gupta, the TJHSST junior, says reflecting on her own time in middle school is what led her to become a WISE club officer. “I took a bunch of engineering and tech classes, and I was usually one of the only girls there,” Gupta said. “It made me want to prove a point, and to do what I could to help other girls not feel out of place when they get to middle school.”