Still existing somewhere on the internet’s “cloud” is a long-forgotten spreadsheet with the names of each Clemson student enrolled in the 2016 INVESTors Creative Inquiry. Beside their names are lists of middle schools in the Upstate: three per student, with many of the schools receiving government funding because of their location in traditionally low-income communities. Each student was tasked with reaching out to every science teacher at the schools they were assigned in an attempt to forge new outreach partnerships in the Upstate region.
“We sent them cold emails, and I personally didn’t get a single response,” said Knowles, a biochemistry major. “I think we only got two responses in that entire time, which is crazy to think about because now we can’t accommodate all of the teachers who want us to come to their schools.”
After making connections with teachers at Lakeview Middle in West Greenville and McCants Middle in Anderson, the team set out, building a regular schedule of monthly meetings in which they take over a teacher’s classroom for a day and lead hands-on science activities: the art of blood-typing, a relay race to learn how genes are inherited, competitions to build the most weather-resistant “house.” The CU INVESTors aim to make science fun and relatable through arts, crafts and games that help students envision themselves as future scientists-in-training. The response so far has been overwhelmingly positive.
“A lot of the time, the teachers we work with have large classes, and they don’t necessarily have the time to plan or lead the activities that we do all by themselves,” said Sherley, a genetics and microbiology major. “We’ll come in with eight students split between classrooms and we can work one-on-one with all of the students, which gives the teacher time to catch up on grading, and they seem to really appreciate it all. Mrs. McMann, the teacher we work with at McCants, tells us every time how happy she is that we visit her classes. ‘My students love it and they’re always involved’ — her emails are so positive and encouraging.”
And it’s not just the teachers who are impacted. Five years since its inception and more than 400 children later, the INVESTors are well accustomed to the thank you’s and the questions of “When are you coming back?” from eager middle schoolers, excited to learn time and again.
“We’ll have students leave our lessons, run down the hall and shout to their friends, ‘You’re going to love going to this class today, it’s so much fun!’” Knowles said.
“Or we’ll be in the hallway and another class will see what we’re doing with our class, and they’ll say, ‘Why aren’t we doing that? When will we do that? Are we doing that today?’ It’s fun to see that they’re excited and happy that we’re there with them,” said Taylor Creighton, a junior genetics student in the group.
Amid the children’s enthusiasm are also stories of growth, of kids who had never taken much interest in their education until a day spent with the INVESTors. Some students have thanked the group for making their usually melancholy days a bit brighter; others admit the INVESTors helped them to “like” science a bit more than they did prior to the lesson.
Elle Johnson, a junior genetics major, had one of those students in her first semester.
“When we were teaching about human body systems, I remember Mrs. McMann told me about one specific student. She had never heard this student speak out or be vocal about an answer to a problem before. Yet, we would ask her questions, and she answered us multiple times,” Johnson said. “I’d never met this student before, and I didn’t know that was a characteristic of hers, so it was cool to hear that and to know that we had had an impact on her.”
“They’re so easy to give up,” Creighton added. “They’ll say, ‘No, I’m just stupid. I don’t know what to do.’ A lot of times, the kids just need a support system, someone to tell them, ‘No, you’re not stupid, this is just hard, and I can help you.’ And then you watch them overcome that challenge, and they become interested and involved in what we’re doing.”
To extend their impact, at the end of each lesson the INVESTors show a presentation to the middle schoolers that details potential jobs they could seek based on the day’s lesson. For instance, after the McCants students rolled cars down the hallway in the name of electricity, they returned to their classroom to learn how to become a mechanic, an engineer or an MRI technician. Importantly, the INVESTors share careers that are attainable with varying levels of education — from high school, to technical college, to four-year universities and professional schools. It’s a facet of their lesson that aims to remove the intimidation from higher education, showing that everyone has a role to play in advancing science and technology.
“In my little group, I always ask them what they want to be when they grow up,” Johnson said. “Some of them say, ‘I’m not smart enough to be an engineer or a scientist.’ And I always tell them they are, they can do it.”