Even though MIT was on semester break during the month of January, some students still made a point of spending time in the classroom.
Over Independent Activities Period (IAP), 11 MIT students served in schools around the country as part of the fifth annual Four Weeks for America Challenge. Through Four Weeks for America, which is offered by the MIT Public Service Center and Teach For America, students have the opportunity to work under the guidance of a Teach For America host teacher to develop projects that will have a long-term effect on the participating schools. Such projects often include curriculum development, data analysis or classroom management strategies. The success of the program at MIT has led Teach For America to create similar models at other universities, including at Harvard University and Johns Hopkins University.
This year, the MIT students implemented projects as close as Boston and as far away as San Jose, Calif. For some, Four Weeks for America served as an outlet to transform a passion for science into an impact in the classroom.
The science behind the fun
Nikita Consul, a junior in chemical engineering, was excited to be matched with Webster Middle School in Oklahoma City because the teacher wanted to start a science fair for her students.
Consul took the time to work directly with the middle school students in their own preparations. Though the students' ideas often took explosive turns toward erupting volcano models, bottle rockets and the like, she always strove to point them to the underlying science — be it the principles of plate tectonics or the physics of flight.
"The science fair was a good way to establish a role for myself in the eyes of the students," Consul says. "The students viewed me as a science expert and always asked a lot of questions."
Though the fair won't actually happen until April, Consul has been working on guidelines for the school to assist with logistics and development of student projects. Her four-week experience has officially ended, but she is still working with the school on documentation so the fair can be replicated every year.
After graduation, Consul plans on pursuing a career in medicine and academia. Even though medical school is likely to be a different experience than the middle school classroom, her experience with education through Four Weeks for America only reaffirmed her plans.
"I was able to realize my fondness for using my knowledge to convey information that is useful to another person," Consul says. "I enjoyed bringing a smile to the students' faces as they realized that their idea for a science project could actually translate into scientific terminology and the steps of the scientific method. This past month was the turning point in my MIT career in which I solidified my desire to study medicine and become a professor of medical school."
Joseph Conte, a senior in mechanical engineering, sought to have an astronomical impact on the sixth-grade science class at Navajo Middle School in Navajo, N.M. Conte designed and taught a space unit, which included developing lesson outlines, lecture presentations, homework assignments and in-class assessments.
"I wanted to participate in Four Weeks for America because I like teaching, and I wanted to help students more fully reach their potential in math and science," Conte says.
In developing his unit, Conte made a point of incorporating technology into the lessons.
"One of the lessons I taught involved the computer program Solar Walk," Conte says. "I used a projector and zoomed around the solar system, stopping at each planet and providing information about it. I have heard that the students are highly visual, so I thought that this style of teaching would help optimize their absorption of the material. It seems to have been effective for most of the students, particularly in their understanding of eclipses."
In addition to providing an exciting outer space curriculum, which the science class can use year after year, Conte made his mark by employing the quintessential egg drop contest as part of a lesson on gravity. According to Conte, the students enjoyed testing different contraptions to prevent their eggs from meeting an unfortunate demise when dropped from the top of the school's bleachers.
"They had a lot of fun building and testing their crafts," Conte says. "In the process, they also learned about how gravity works and the forces an object will experience as it falls to the ground. By building their crafts in a way that incorporated their newly acquired scientific knowledge, some of them were practicing engineering for the first time."
The Four Weeks for America Challenge is an annual program administered by the MIT Public Service Center in conjunction with Teach for America. For more information, contact program administrator Linden McEntire at firstname.lastname@example.org.