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Celebration of Service

Volunteers rescue science event despite budget cuts

When the going gets tough, IBM researcher helps come up with solutions

When Jim Laredo, a manager and researcher specializing in service delivery at the IBM T.J Watson Research Center, learned the science fair at his son’s intermediate school had been eliminated due to budget constraints, he and a group of interested parents developed an alternative approach. “Some people didn’t realize the science fair was gone, including me at first. A lot of kids were looking forward to the fair, and we created something special to fill the gap,” said Laredo.

Based on Laredo’s experience with the IBM Family Science Saturday program, the team proposed a student-driven “Hands-on Science Night” for Somers Intermediate School, located in New York state. Students aged 10 to 11 could choose from science experiments recommended by Laredo, or they could research and design their own experiment. In all cases, Laredo acted as their science mentor, materials for many experiments were borrowed from IBM with additional supplies provided by the school’s Parent Teacher Association (PTA), and other volunteers helped with setting up the event itself.

A twist on the traditional science fair

School principal John Griffiths liked that Hands-on Science Night delivered an important twist on the traditional science fair: at the Hands-on Science Night, the student scientists teach other students about the concepts and methods contained in the experiments. “Hands-on Science Night requires students to become teachers, deepening their learning and strengthening their communication skills. Real world events become the impetus for learning, and working corroboratively is essential for success,” said Griffiths.

Peer tutoring is known to be an effective teaching method that enhances the learning process of both the tutor and the student. One student scientist said, “I didn’t know I would like teaching so much; maybe one day I’ll be a teacher.”

With the support of Principal Griffiths, parents and students were invited to a lunch meeting where the idea of Hands-on Science Night was presented to them. Jim Laredo demonstrated several engaging experiments to create excitement. As a result, 15 student teams and several adult volunteers signed-up to participate.

From March to May, the students worked with Laredo and other volunteers on their experiments, including participating in a “dress rehearsal” three days before Science Night in order to finalize their presentations. The rehearsal also gave the student scientists an opportunity to see and learn from each other, as they would be busy with their own demonstrations on Hands-on Science Night.

“The PTA got t-shirts for the kids, and they were all very excited and proud to put them on,” Laredo said.

Transforming community members into role models

The event itself was a success; it “sold-out” with almost one-hundred student participants joined by their parents. Student attendees, some as young as seven years old, were given passports to seven different science stations where their peers coached them through experiments on a variety of topics including vitamin C detection, sublimation, electrolysis, cloud in a bottle, magnetic forces, and chemical reactions.

Afterwards, Principal Griffiths said, “I have attended countless curriculum evenings over my many years as an educator, but no event equals our Hands-On Science Night. This one evening encapsulates our highest ideals for education. It stresses the importance of the sciences, and transforms community members into role models for our students.”

While Laredo kept watch over the experiments, other adult volunteers assisted with event registration, distributing station passports, and keeping the evening on schedule. “Using the passports we were able to give exposure to all the experiments, providing the student attendees with two hours of hands-on science tutoring in a fun setting. Everyone left with a smile, and we were thrilled we got the participation we had hoped for,” said Laredo.

Science is a success

In addition to hearing several stories about how well the evening went, the team collected survey data to formally measure the night’s impact. Ninety-two percent of students said they were more interested in science after participating in Hands-on Science Night, and 100% said they would join Science Night again either as a student scientist or attendee.

One parent said that the best attribute of the event was having the students manage and explain the experiments themselves, “this also motivated the younger students by showing that kids like them could learn science. It was far more impactful than adults running the experiments.” Another parent added, “My son was reluctant to go at first, but at the last station he said he was glad he came.”

“Those who attend are swept up in an event that is knee deep in science content, while providing all the fun of a carnival. I can't wait to do it all over again," says Griffiths.

Plans for 2011 are well underway, thanks in part to an IBM Community Grant awarded to Hands-on Science Night to assist in securing an inventory of materials. In addition to continuing to have students teach their peers, the school is considering using Science Night as a bridge to the Tri-County Science Fair where students would match their skills with others in the region.

“There’s no reason why this couldn’t scale broader. Anybody can take this idea and make it work in their school. It’s some effort, but not much. What you need is the support of a few volunteers, and the school—the principal and PTA were very much into what we did together, and their assistance was vital,” says Laredo.

Laredo was able to leverage existing resources to fill a need. Explore what other science programs might be available at your IBM or company location, and determine if they can be applied in some other venue. Sometimes the quickest path to success is to follow in someone else’s footsteps.

IBM is marking its centennial year with a worldwide celebration of volunteer service. Throughout 2011, IBM invites everyone to join our global community of employees, retirees, families and friends as we support the communities where we work, live and learn together.