Helping Kids Think Like Scientists

February 24, 2017
Hillary Hempstead
Assistant Professor Robert Owen
Assistant Professor Robert Owen demonstrates scientific concepts to an audience of 51 children during a day-long STEM camp facilitated by the nonprofit Get With The Program.
Photo credit: Yevhen Gulenko

Poised in front of an audience in Wright Lecture Hall, Assistant Professor Robert Owen sprinkles sand on a vibrating plate. But instead of presenting to his usual audience of college students, 51 children under the age of 10 fill the seats.

As Owen changes the resonant frequency, the plate vibrates and the sand scatters. In areas where the plate vibrates strongly, sand grains bounce away. But where the plate does not vibrate, interesting spatial patterns form. As each new shape emerges, squeals of delight echo throughout the hall.

These young onlookers not typically seen on the Oberlin College campus are participants in a day-long camp facilitated by Get with the Program, a nonprofit organization created by Jason Williams ’05, that promotes and reinforces literacy in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

On this Presidents’ Day holiday, in addition to observing science demonstrations in Wright Hall, the children also visited the Conservatory of Music. There the group toured the Technology in Music and Related Arts (TIMARA) studio and created instruments from materials such as straws and bananas.

Since its inception, Get with the Program has been connecting with Oberlin College in various ways, from using donated classroom space to working with professors, like Owen, who offer their time to work with the children. And while the nonprofit conducts programs during both the summer and holidays when many schools are not in session, it also partners with local schools to provide after-school STEM programs.

For Williams, the concept for the nonprofit formed when he wanted to teach his children computer programming skills.

“I wanted to be able to teach my kids how to code,” says Williams. “But I wasn’t adept enough to teach them in-depth principles. But I knew I could teach the thought process behind it.” That’s when Williams had the idea to create an educational, STEM-focused book called Awesome Adventures of Amina and Amir, based on two of his children. His wife, Arisa Williams ’06, designed and illustrated the book.

Funded in part by the Oberlin College LaunchU program, the nonprofit’s concept originally included the book as the sole educational tool. However, the scope of the organization's work evolved and now includes day camps and afterschool programs that help educate all K-12 kids in STEM subjects.

“I’m what you’d call a latent scientist,” Williams laughs. “Math and science were always things I was interested in as a kid. However, I wasn’t really pushed in that direction. In college I was actually going to major in math, but I kind of got deterred. It’s something that has always been a part of me but never nurtured. Starting Get with the Program is kind of my second chance on science.”

One of Williams’ primary goals is that children understand the real-world application of STEM subjects. “Growing up, I didn’t always see the relevance. In high school I took a calculus class, but I didn’t see how it applied to work in the real world. That’s a big part of Get with the Program—demonstrating that relevance to kids.”

For Brian Hider, investment analyst at Oberlin College and father of a participant in a recent camp, the value of the program is clear. “I think Get with the Program provides my son with a basic understanding of the real-world possibilities and applications of a STEM education,” says Hider. “By using his hands and seeing experiments, he gains a different understanding of the possibilities and opportunities in science, technology, engineering, and math.”

When it comes to Get with the Program’s partnership with the college, Owen believes that there is significance in holding the program on campus. “It gives young students, of many different backgrounds, an opportunity to experience aspects of higher education directly and in a welcoming environment. This in itself can be fun, but I think there's a deeper value than that. Every child, regardless of socioeconomic background or any other factor, should feel welcome in the setting of higher education.”

Owen also praises the hands-on experimentation that the program encourages. “Another value, I think especially with a STEM camp like this one, is to instill in young students the awareness that science is not about a listing of facts and figures to be found in a textbook. Science is fundamentally about direct, hands-on observation by regular people, just like these children.”

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