Beyond the Classroom: CarbonEARTH

Jun 10, 2014

Albert Einstein once said “If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.”  That’s the motivation behind the CarbonEARTH program at Penn State, where graduate students teach science to elementary students.

A middle school gymnasium isn’t where most Penn State grad students would expect to show their year’s work, but under the basketball hoops in Philipsburg-Osceola middle school, the CarbonEARTH program wrapped up a year of collaboration between Philipsburg elementary students and Penn State doctoral candidates.  The program is intended to make graduates better communicators about their work.

“The idea is that if you can explain what you do, as a graduate student, to a third-grader, you should be well-trained to explain it to anyone,” said Seth Wilberding, one of the program’s administrators.

Ashlee Dere, a geologist at Penn State, taught the kids about the scientific process.

“We bring some of our research that we’re doing into the classroom, show them the process of how we come up with questions, and how we go about testing different hypotheses,” Dere said.  “We try to make it more relevant for them so they have a sense of how science really happens, and also of the bigger world that they live in.”

Adam Perez, who studies cyanobacteria, taught in the Harrisburg branch of CarbonEARTH.  He particularly enjoys teaching science to elementary-age students.

“At that age, they’re so inquisitive, and they actually love to ask you questions upon questions because they’re genuinely interested in learning,” he said.

At a table under one of the basketball hoops, students poured pale green putty at the top of a small slope and recorded how long it took to flow to the bottom. Chase Maines, a 6th grade glacier wonk, said this demonstrates glacial movement.

“If you would take the Berg glacier in Greenland,” said Maines, “it is moving at 2.4 meters/day, which is very slow compared to the Yacobshlavin glacier in Antarctica, which is moving at 34.3 meters/day.”

CarbonEARTH gives elementary-schoolers role models in science and in academia. The program has Maines considering a career in glaciology.

“I was thinking about studying glaciers and where they’re going to be in the future - how fast they’re moving, how big they are, how thick they are,” he said.

CarbonEARTH is starting the fifth and final year of its National Science Foundation grant.  Dere hopes that science fairs like this one will keep students’ enthusiasm alive.

Dere says science fairs help “the community come together and kind of see that this is exciting and worthwhile.”

Chase Maines is now one more proponent of good science communicating: “It makes it really fun honestly, and I think a lot of people should like science.”