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Students Spend Spring Break Teaching Science to Children

By Nomi Giszpenc
Staff Reporter

"How does a radio work?"

"What makes a plant grow?"

"If I drink vinegar and baking soda, will I blow up?"

Who better to answer these questions than MIT students? Last week, three groups went to inner-city public schools in Newark, N.J., the Bronx, and Baltimore to help the volunteer program, Teach for America, as part of the Public Service Center Alternative Spring Break.

"It went great. The teachers were really supportive, the students enjoyed it, and MIT students had a great time," said Anthony J. Ives G, who has organized the trip for the past two years.

The groups undertook weeks of preparation that included a crash course on teaching from Brian T. White '85, a technical instructor in the Department of Biology. During the week, pairs of students introduced sixth-graders to electronics and genetics.

The children assembled and kept their own quiz boards, a simple circuit gadget whose materials were provided by the Edgerton Center. They also played the "face lab," a game that displays the principles of inheritance and genetics. The sixth-graders were paired off into couples, with the "moms" and "dads" flipping coins to produce "children."

Experience went well

At the end of the day, MITstudents would return to their hotel and discuss their experiences with each other, and this proved to be a valuable part of learning and having fun, Ives said.

Throughout the week, volunteers also met with people in Teach for America, a practice which "worked well, and I wished we had more of that," said Andy W. Su '97.

"We learned a lot about the state of the public schools, which is not as bad as you might think. But it takes an amazing amount of effort to teach 30 kids, and it would make a big difference if there were more resources and teachers, if society placed more of a priority on teaching," Ives said.

Su and his partner, Shan S. Huang '00, were deeply affected by the lives of the students in their classrooms, Su said. "The truth is, many of the kids can make it in life, but it is also true that most of the kids won't. Now, that was a pretty bitter pill for me to swallow."

Huang, in helping a sixth-grader revise her autobiography, learned that her mother had died from using drugs but that she wants to go to college and make a life for herself, he said.

One kindergartner even asked, "Could I take you home to be my dad?" Su said.

Program broadened views

Beyond community service, the program was also an opportunity for MIT students to be exposed to things they would not generally encounter, Ives said. "We get kind of isolated in our ivory tower."

Because people from all across campus participated, students had a rare opportunity to meet each other and work with various organizations like the PSC and the Alumni Office, Ives said.

All sorts of reasons motivated the participants. Many were freshmen, with few other options and a willingness to try something fun and interesting, Ives said. Many were also interested in the opportunity to do public service.

Su remembered that a similar service had been done for him in third grade and middle school and that he knew how much energy and excitement older students could bring to kids, Su said.

Ives has had fun seeing others learn what he learned in his years of helping in Cambridge public schools, he said. But "I would like to see it grow," he said.

Ives will not run the program any longer since he is graduating this year, but he thinks that in the future, the program may include volunteering in homeless shelters and AIDS wards.

"People could be doing all different types of service," Ives said. Even this year, a group this year participated in Habitat for Humanity in Maryland.

In addition to sponsorship by the PSC, the groups received financial support from the Office of the President, the Office of the Provost, and the Department of Urban Studies and Planning.